Commercial drones are now available to the public at knockdown prices. But what lies ahead for the UAV? And what if it gets into the wrong hands?
While the sales statistics are still being assembled, media headlines suggest that Christmas 2014 was an outstanding one for the sale of small, 'hobbyist' drones for recreational purposes. While battery life is a real problem for most of these toy drones, with flying time generally being limited to no more than 10 to 15 minutes, their appeal has been huge. However, their proliferation has created major safety, security and privacy concerns.
It should not surprise anyone to find that disruptive technological breakthroughs can leave affected regulatory bodies floundering in their wake. Commercial drones range from tiny four-rotor, battery driven 'toys' to serious unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), capable of lifting one or more tonnes of cargo and travelling extensive distances more or less autonomously. They present an obvious instance where regulatory authorities around the world are either scrambling to play catch-up or, in a few instances - notably in the US - seem to be trying to smother the upstart technology with a blanket of 'impossible' rules.
Part of the problem regulators face is that all UAVs, whatever the size, pose a potential threat to civilian populations, not least because even a few kilos of malfunctioning drone dropping unexpectedly out of the sky is a hazard to all below. The smallest drone 'toys' have the potential to be as threatening as their more massive commercial counterparts; entering 'drone injuries' into a search engine already produces an interesting list of cut injuries from mini-drone whirling rotor blades.
A video-equipped four-rotor UAV with a circumference of less than 30cm can play havoc with all our privacy conventions while also posing a crash threat if the 'pilot' loses control. Flown over an airport runway by aircraft-spotting enthusiasts keen to get some footage of a landing jumbo jet, tiny UAVs have already created some heart-stopping moments for pilots. There are real safety risks here, and regulators naturally want to think through all the implications of a technology that has been transforming aerial warfare and is now being commercialised at a breathtaking pace.
However, a huge gulf is opening up between regulatory authorities in, for example, the UK, Europe, Canada and Australia, and the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) in the United States. The former set of regulators are enacting rules that favour some quite bold forms of commercial drone usage, but the FAA , despite being instructed by both Congress and President Obama to expedite the commercialisation of drones, continues to set rules that make it impossible for companies like Amazon and Google to take drone commercialisation into the retail delivery space to any significant extent.
There are three major stumbling blocks in the FAA's current position: its insistence that drone pilots need to be fully qualified, its desire to treat the airworthiness certification of drones in accordance with the way it certifies new commercial or business jets, and its very restrictive rules about where commercial companies can test-fly their products.
Famously, in July 2014, Amazon's vice president of global public policy, Paul Misener, wrote what amounted to an open letter to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta threatening to move Amazon's drone development outside the US, if the FAA did not allow it to test-fly various versions of its drone prototypes outdoors at its own test site in Seattle. The Prime Air drone programme is designed to pave the way for the giant retailer to deliver small packages to consumers in less than 30 minutes.
In December 2014, the FAA said it was 'reviewing' Amazon's request, which amounts to a tactical stall of some six months, hardly what one would call 'expediting' the commercialisation of drones. According to the Wall Street Journal, the US currently has fewer than 12 commercial UAV manufacturers, whereas Europe now has thousands. However, casting this as a confrontation between the FAA and Amazon may be missing the bigger point, which is the real feasibility of using drones as delivery mechanisms in an advanced market in urban or suburban context.
Pietro Amati is the founder and CEO of Advanced UAV Technology, specialising in various sizes of UAV helicopter, the heaviest of which can carry a two-tonne payload and travel autonomously for three to four hours, with full collision detection and avoidance avionics. Amati regards Amazon and Google's retail drone delivery exercises to date as basically massive and very effective PR exercises rather than serious commercial propositions.
"I cannot see small drones doing urban deliveries. In the UK, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) requires drone flights to stay away from persons not actually involved in the flight operation and to be at least 150 metres from structures," he notes. This would mean arranging drone deliveries to arrive in a local park, with huge risk of theft of both the drone and the delivery contents. Is it really convenient for someone to have to leave their flat or residence to walk or drive to the local park to collect a delivery instead of having a parcel put through their letter box in the normal way? It is no surprise that early tests by Google involve delivering packages to Australian farms.
"I applaud the research and publicity being given to the commercialisation of drones by Amazon and Google, but in terms of mass urban deliveries this is just not a feasible model in my view. Amazon is talking about 30-minute drone deliveries, which would entail setting up a vast number of well-stocked warehouses distributed right across Europe and the US, rather than its current central distribution model. That is not a commercially sensible plan as far as I can see. Besides, although I am very involved in the industry, I would not want to have a drone overfly my garden to drop a package on my neighbour's lawn, assuming they have a 150-metre-long garden," he adds.
While one takes Amati's point, one has to grant Amazon some commercial credit. It is unlikely that Amazon's Prime Air team would spend a huge amount of time on successive iterations of their drone technology without considering the logistics angle for at least a little while. However, Amati is not alone in viewing Amazon's Prime Air initiative as mainly a brand-enhancing exercise. Richard Hardwick is a director of a Derbyshire-based design consultancy Fibreflight, which advises UAV manufacturers on engineering, aerodynamic and composite material issues related to the manufacture of their aircraft. For Hardwick, Amazon's Prime Air is a pure PR gimmick.
"There is no way this kind of retail delivery could happen in the UK or Europe," he says. The CAA and the European Aviation Safety Association (EASA) rules simply do not allow for it and, moreover, the kind of quadcopter drone Amazon is working with is hopeless in any kind of wind, Hardwick argues. So you would need calm days and if you could get round the rules, you would have to launch from a site that is very close to where you want to do the delivery. For him it is a clear non-starter.
Hardwick says he is very happy with the rules the CAA currently has in place. "No one should be flying UAVs over built-up areas. People need to understand the law. If they want to buy a UAV 'toy', they need to realise that same 'toy' is quite capable of fulfilling a serious commercial function, or of being misdirected so that it clatters into the neighbours' roof. What I would say to anyone is that if you are doing UAV flying as a hobby, you need to spend £20 to join the British Model Flying Association. They have a very clear set of safety guidelines on their website and you are insured straight away, which is an important consideration."
The problem right now, Hardwick says, is that in the initial consumer hobbyist craze to buy cheap video and camera equipped UAVs, the rules are being flouted out of sheer ignorance - which, he adds, remains no excuse in the eyes of the law. "I was at a well-known British toy shop in London just before Christmas and there was huge interest in the 'toy' UAV demonstrations the staff were doing. However, they were flying the UAVs over the heads of the shoppers, which was a clear safety violation. People really do need to understand and abide by the law."
Nigel King, owner and founder of Quest UAV, which specialises in a single-propeller foam-winged UAV designed for aerial survey work, says he is content working within the CAA's current rules. "We are authorised, and under the right regulations we can go as high as 1500 feet and up to 1km from the pilot. When we go abroad, we operate up to 2km from the pilot but that is against the CAA's line-of-sight rule in the UK," he says.
Missions that make money
While the 'toy' drones on display at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas all reportedly struggled to achieve a battery life of 10 to 15 minutes, Quest's UAV can fly for up to two hours, covering 10km of survey flying on a single mission. Its body, really no more than a double box between the wings, holds the battery in one compartment and the mission technology in the other.
With five years' experience, King is sceptical about talk of making thousands of drone deliveries a day in major cities. "To reach a reasonable level of short-range deliveries, you would need each drone to do a number of deliveries a day, not just one. What I have learned with drones is that if something can go wrong, it will go wrong. Getting multiple repeat successful deliveries, even if the CAA and FAA were to allow it, and doing it regularly day in and day out, will be extremely challenging. I cannot see this happening for many years yet," he notes.
By way of contrast, serious survey and reconnaissance flights for a whole range of purposes are being carried out all the time. That is where the immediate future of commercial UAV flying lies, King argues.
At the other end of the scale entirely from Quest's two-metre wingspan UAV, is the Flyox1 from Singular Aircraft. As Derek Mendonca, a director at Singular, explains, this is a serious commercial UAV, with a twin-propeller engine mounted on a raised wing, giving it the appearance of a somewhat scaled down flying boat. The UAV can indeed land on water; it passed its flotation tests last March. This is a proper 'aircraft' UAV, capable of flying for up to 63 hours if used for border or coastguard surveillance, or for carrying up to a tonne of cargo.
The Flyox1 was initially designed for fire-fighting, capable of dropping a tonne of water into the heart of a wildfire blaze without risking the life of a human pilot. However, Singular's UAV applications are numerous and include anti-poaching, surveillance against trafficking and search-and-rescue. The vehicle is attracting interest in Asia and developing countries to assist with crop spraying, and in emergency aid, for deliveries of water, medical and food supplies to hard-to-reach areas.
The craft has a full avionics suite with collision detection and avoidance and is designed to fly much as the US flies its Predator drones. As such, most of the testing has had to take place in the Middle East, in desert conditions or on deserted lakes. "The whole point about our UAV is that similar vehicles cost upwards of US$10 million, whereas the Flyox1 will retail at 500,000 euros," Mendonca comments. It uses standard aviation fuel and off-the-shelf engines, with some slight modifications by the Singular team. The key difference, he declares, is that operating costs for the end user are far lower than competitors can offer.
"We accept that we will not be able to fly the Flyox1 in the UK or Europe, or the US under current regulations, but there are a number of countries that have more UAV-friendly regulations and we are seeing plenty of interest," he comments.
The nightmare scenario
One cannot leave the subject of the commercial use of drones without a brief glance at the nightmare scenario that follows logically from the readily available low-cost UAVs, namely their future use by terrorists of all stripes. This threat is pondered in a recent paper from the Birmingham University Policy Commission: 'The Security Impact of Drones: Challenges and Opportunities'. The report aims to stimulate policy thinking on remotely piloted aircraft (RPA), but focuses largely on the adverse public reaction to the US use of military UAVs in counter-terrorism strikes. It does, however, note that "the security threat posed by individuals misusing RPA is a serious one, whether for criminal or terrorist purposes."
For criminals, UAVs could be used as look-out devices, for smuggling or even for murders. The authors warn that in the hands of terrorists, fast, cheap, readily available micro-UAVs in particular will be hard to defend against. Professor David Hastings Dunn from the University of Birmingham, a member of the Policy Commission, warns: "Even without a payload, drones represent a potential threat that is as yet unaccounted for in conventional risk assessments. Their size, cost and ease of use makes small drones ideal devices to be swarmed against vulnerable targets."
Despite that chilling note, one has to accept that the genie cannot be put back into the bottle. UAVs are with us now, for better or for worse. To paraphrase an ancient Chinese curse, we're living in interesting times.