Clearing the flight path to drones for good
Alan Peaford discovers the 'demon drone' may indeed be an angel in disguise.
If there is one part of our industry that is so often demonised in the eyes of the populace at large, it has to be the world of unmanned aircraft – the remotely piloted air system (RPAS), or the drone.
Even more than the general fear of the autonomous driverless car, the concept of the pilotless aircraft – even one less than 20cm wide – fills many with dread and concerns over privacy, crime and safety.
The western world is torn between the freedom of people to enjoy a particular pastime, and the need for authorities to regulate or protect under legal guidelines.
Up to no good
In the UK, we have seen headlines about needing to curb the use of drones around prisons. Small, enthusiast UAVs are being used by criminal elements to drop drugs, SIM cards and other 'valuables' into prison exercise yards. They are, it seems, not put off by the posters warning they are entering a no-fly zone. I guess if you are already on the wrong side of the law, concerns about disobeying a sign are unlikely to stop you.
As anyone who has attended the major aerospace events over the past year will have seen, there is an increasing number of technology firms and defence specialists offering a whole range of anti-drone technology.
An easier way
As the newspapers and pundits call for a ban on drones and the prison officers beg for funding for low-tech nets to try and snarl the offending air vehicles, there is a simpler solution. In the UK it is illegal to jam electronic signals. Many of the great devices shown at events like DSEI rely on jamming or taking over the signal and sending the UAV back from where it came, or even better – zapping it out of existence.
At major airports, there are increasing reports of drones getting in the path of inbound aircraft in order to get a great bit of film. In the UAE, Dubai’s Civil Aviation Authority (DCAA) can pick up UAVs on a radar and find out who is flying them. Every owner is registered and has to be trained.
Primarily, the danger from wayward drone owners can be contained by regulation and technology.
As so often in aviation, it is essential that regulation and laws keep pace with technology.
It would be wrong to call for an end to all drones, though. In fact, the remotely piloted aircraft are major disruptors and could bring immense benefits to the whole of humanity.
Drones for good
In the central African republic of Rwanda, RPAS is already making a giant impact that is saving lives and adding to the country’s economic growth.
US technology firm, Zipline, set up a base in Rwanda to properly test its hypothesis that RPAS can operate safely and provide benefit to a population.
Rwanda had to develop new regulations for the operation of the unmanned systems in its airspace, and Zipline had to develop safety systems to demonstrate it could operate as safely as any other stakeholder in the nation’s skies.
The result has been impressive. Zipline now operates the world’s only drone delivery system for urgent medicines such as blood and vaccines, reaching remote rural villages and settlements in the “land of 1,000 hills”.
As of April 2018, Zipline drones had made more than 4,000 deliveries in Rwanda, covering over 300,000km and delivering over 7,000 units of blood to 19 rural hospitals, according to Keller Rinaudo, the firm’s chief executive.
Rwanda responded by building the world’s first civilian ‘droneport’ and has now given the go-ahead for a second. Zipline will be developing a manufacturing plant which brings jobs and technology expertise to the host nation.
The use of “personal” leisure drones is banned in the country, but the drones-for-good are doing exactly what they should do. It has not been without challenges, but Zipline and the Rwandan government have worked together to make it work.
Neighbouring Kenya is also breaking new ground. Working with privately held cargo carrier Astral Aviation, the government is preparing regulations to allow the Nairobi operator to begin humanitarian and then freight deliveries of up to 10-tonnes of cargo. It also wants to introduce package deliveries.
Africa will also be among some of the world’s more remote places in developing drones for environmental and marine research, conservation and preservation.
Universities around the world are working on developing systems to aid that research.
UK company UAVE sold its Prion MK3 drone to Aarhus University in Denmark to measure black carbon in the high atmosphere. The specks can settle on the ice, increasing its thermal conductivity and causing it to melt faster. If it continues, this melting is likely to contribute substantially to rising sea levels as well as to possible changes in ocean circulation. The drone is helping the fight to stop this happening.
In the world of wildlife conservation, drones are replacing helicopters and improving safety. Time in the air is costly, and low-level flying can also stress animals.
According to a report from the Smithsonian in the US, it can be dangerous for the humans involved too. Between 1937 and 2000, 60 biologists and technicians were killed in aviation accidents related to wildlife management. At least another ten have perished in recent years.
Drones operate at a fraction of the cost and are relatively easy to operate, with more precision and far less risk. Aerial wildlife surveying was the first step in using drones for conservation, but around the world, drones are now being used to monitor protected areas, collect data in remote areas and even catch poachers.
Even in wildlife monitoring programmes, the drone is already proving more accurate than human, ground-based research. In a recent study, drone-derived data was between 43% and 96% more accurate than ground counts.
Human safety is also being improved with the introduction of drones in law enforcement and fire-fighting.
A Goldman Sachs study estimates an $881 million (£692.9 million) market for firefighting uses of drones by 2020, with exponential annual growth.
At the moment, drones are mostly used for monitoring purposes – giving crews a birds-eye view of what’s going on and deploying their thermal imaging cameras to identify hotspots or people within buildings.
But with record temperatures, high winds and dry conditions, the risks of fires igniting, taking hold and ravaging cities around the world are on the rise. Even in areas with vast resources and an army of firefighters, the sheer size and scale of some modern infernos can exhaust firefighters physically and emotionally, and hamper their ability to put fires out.
High-rise living is also providing challenges to traditional firefighting equipment and techniques.
Latvian-based drone company, Aerones, has created a firefighter drone that can fly up to 984 feet within six minutes, making it ideal for high-rise missions. It is designed to guide a fire hose to heights that surpass 100-foot ladder trucks by nearly ten times, and precisely target the seat of the fire.
It is no surprise then that the aerospace industry and its disruptors are flocking to unmanned technologies and developing solutions for some humanity's great challenges. Like any tool, they can be abused – but we have the wit and the will to develop the technology to counter the adverse activities. And then we can completely celebrate those drones for good.