ALTHOUGH DRONES, or uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs) as they are also known, were originally developed for military target practice and surveillance, the civilian versions that have emerged over the past decade have created a thriving new industry. Commercial UAVs, especially the hovering type, are used for jobs ranging from inspecting power lines, buildings and crops, to aerial photography, transporting medical supplies and even delivering pizzas. The value of this market reached $22.5bn last year, according to Drone Industry Insights, a German research firm with its eye on the business. By 2025 that figure is expected to exceed $42bn.
Something helping to accelerate this growth is a gradual relaxation of the strictures that aviation authorities, being naturally cautious about all these newfangled flying machines taking to the sky, have imposed on the industry. In most countries, drones may not be flown near people or over built-up areas, and must be kept within view of their operator. Exemptions may be sought for specific flights, but this can be a long-winded process, hedged with restrictions. For instance, regulators have usually insisted on ground observers being used to follow flights beyond an operator’s visual line-of-sight, or BVLOS as it is known. This means extra staff have to be hired and trained, which pushes up costs.
However, as companies build up their flying experience, things are starting to change. In January, for example, a firm called American Robotics became the first operator approved by America’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to fly automated UAVs at specific sites without any pilots or observers being present. Staff at the company’s base near Boston oversee these flights, even though the drones operate as far away as Nevada and Kansas.
To infinity and beyond
At the moment, American Robotics’ flights take place in rural areas. Their purpose is to survey farmland. The company’s quadcopter Scout drones wait, charged up and ready to fly, in boxes located on customers’ farms. At the beginning of a mission the box lid slides open and the drone, sitting on its landing pad, is raised for take-off. Once flying, it scans the customer’s fields with a variety of sensors, gathering data on crops and growing conditions. When done, it returns to its box, the lid closes, the data are processed and passed to the farmer, and the drone is recharged.
To avoid aerial collisions, the Scout system employs ground-based acoustic sensors which can hear the engines and propellers of approaching planes from a distance of several kilometres. This allows the position of an incoming flight to be plotted and, if necessary, the drone is instructed to keep clear. The company also plans to survey buildings and other infrastructure. Up to this point, says Reese Mozer, its chief executive, the industry has been “scratching the surface of autonomous drone use”.
Something similar is happening in Britain. In April the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) authorised a firm called sees.ai to carry-out routine BVLOS flights, albeit at specified locations. These include a large construction site in Surrey, to the south-west of London. “It is a big step forward and allows us to fly as often as we like without prior authorisation,” says John McKenna, the firm’s chief executive. For the time being, an observer is required on site, but that person need no longer be in constant contact with the flight-monitoring team at the company’s base near Chichester, on the south coast. The firm hopes that this requirement will soon be lifted.
As its name suggests, sees.ai relies on artificial intelligence to operate its UAVs. To navigate, the craft employ several cameras and also other systems, including GPS, radar and lidar (which uses light instead of reflected radio waves) to build up three-dimensional images of their surroundings. The drones’ software is trained to recognise structures and obstacles, including other aircraft, and to take evasive action if needed. This also lets the craft fly inside tunnels and under oil rigs, where GPS and radio-control signals are easily lost.
Although the covid-19 epidemic has delayed some projects, it has spurred others along—especially the delivery of medical supplies. Antwork Technology, which in 2019 received the first licence granted by China’s Civil Aviation Administration for urban UAV trials, moved quickly from dropping off orders from Starbucks and KFC around its home town of Hangzhou to ferrying blood supplies and samples.
Antwork placed automated drone “ports” that resemble small shipping containers in the car parks of some of the region’s hospitals and laboratories. Medical staff post samples and supplies through doors in the sides of these ports. They are then loaded automatically into a drone sitting on top of the container. At the end of its journey, a drone lands on another port and deposits its cargo, which can then be picked up from the door.
Antwork’s drones, which navigate using GPS and cameras, are governed by a computerised scheduling and monitoring system. Two people at a flight-control centre keep an eye on up to eight drones simultaneously, though for the time being the company also uses some ground observers. Antwork says its drones have cut to a few minutes the time taken to make hospital deliveries that once took half an hour or more by road.
Several big outfits in the West are also keen on the drone-delivery business. Amazon, UPS and Alphabet, Google’s parent, all have projects in development. Some Nordic countries, where the skies are also relatively clear, have been especially drone-friendly. Alphabet’s drone-delivery subsidiary, Wing, has begun its third year of flights in Helsinki, dropping off groceries and food to homes and some public sites, such as picnic areas. Wing’s drones employ a hook on a cable to pick up goods from merchants and deliver them to customers. The drones fly at an altitude of 30-40 metres, which is well below that at which crewed aircraft typically operate. But just in case, the team overseeing the operation is plugged into a ground-based radio that monitors transponders broadcasting the positions of any aircraft in the area. Wing is also investigating the use of miniature transponders on its drones.
Over in Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik, one of the longest-established drone-delivery businesses is also still going strong. This is a partnership between aha, a local company, and Flytrex, an Israeli drone-service firm. Together, they have been delivering groceries and meals by UAV since 2017. Flytrex is now trying to get something similar off the ground in America, with a delivery service from a local Walmart to homes in Fayetteville, North Carolina. On May 25th it was given permission by the FAA to fly above people. For now, its remote pilots still have to keep their craft in view, but ground observers are no longer required. “This is a large step forward and allows us to significantly expand the number of front and backyards we can service,” says Yariv Bash, Flytrex’s boss. The firm’s drones navigate using GPS receivers and other sensors—but not cameras, because of fears that Americans might consider them to be intrusive.
Four days earlier than Flytrex, on May 21st, Manna, an Irish drone-delivery company, obtained a new type of European Union operating certificate. Within certain limits, it allows the firm to authorise UAV operations on its own recognisance. Manna has been delivering food and groceries in suburban Galway for the past year, carrying out more than 35,000 flights, and now aims to set up operations in other cities.
For such progress to continue, operators will have to prove their UAVs have as good an ability as crewed aircraft to detect and avoid one another. “The levels of safety are not going to change between piloted aviation and remotely piloted aviation,” says David Tait, head of innovation at the CAA. Mr Tait is open to alternatives about how drones might do that, but thinks it will involve a mixture of technologies, including some that firms like sees.ai and Wing are developing.
One difficulty is that light aircraft flying in uncontrolled airspaces sometimes operate under so-called Visual Flight Rules. These absolve pilots of the obligation to carry transponders and other instrumentation as long as the journey is being made in conditions of clear visibility and they keep their eyes peeled.
Iris Automation, in California, thinks it has a solution to this problem, which is to give UAVs the equivalent of a sharp pair of eyes. These come in the form of five small cameras that create a 360° view around a drone. This panoptic image is scanned constantly by AI software which has been trained to recognise different types of aircraft from several kilometres away. The system can calculate an incoming aircraft’s range and heading, and automatically adjust the drone’s flight path if a collision looks likely.
Costing from $9,000, this is a reasonably inexpensive piece of kit in aviation terms. It is already fitted to some drones, but John Damush, Iris’s boss and himself a pilot, is also testing it on a two-seater Piper Cub. He thinks drone-tech like this could help crewed flight too, because, unlike Iris’s drones, pilots don’t have eyes in the backs of their heads. ■
Correction: An earlier version of this piece suggested that UPS Flight Forward is involved in working with groups delivering medical supplies by drone in Rwanda and Ghana. This is incorrect. It is actually the UPS foundation, a charitable offshoot of UPS, that is involved.
A version of this article was published online on June 14th 2021
This article appeared in the Science & technology section of the print edition under the headline “Drones off the leash”