The drones are coming. We explore how to make sure the sky doesn’t fall on our heads.
It was the week before Christmas and Olympic silver medallist skier Marcel Hischer was weaving his way down the slalom at Madonna di Campiglio in Italy, in his second run at the World Cup. Seemingly unbeknown to him though, as he continued to glide down the piste he was mere centimetres from serious injury or death as a camera drone that was filming the race came crashing down behind him. Remarkably, he still managed to finish second.
The incident neatly highlights one of the biggest technological challenges of the near future: that the skies are about to get a lot more crowded.
The expectation is that the drones, or ‘unmanned aerial vehicles’ (UAVs), to give them their proper name, are about to rise - both figuratively in terms of usage statistics and literally as the hum of quadcopters above our heads becomes the new normal.
According to a study by Juniper Research, around four million drones were shipped in 2015 - and that figure is set to explode, with shipments expected to increase to 16 million by 2020. And this isn’t to mention the fleets of commercial drones that will soon be buzzing around above us - with all the major delivery and logistics companies actively investigating the possibilities.
For example, DHL has already used drones to deliver medicines to a remote island in the North Sea. Late last year Google announced Project Wing, the latest offshoot from its Google X skunkworks. The company hopes to have drone deliveries up and running in 2017.
Perhaps the firm that has so far made the most noise in this category is Amazon, which is currently working hard on Amazon Prime Air and has released a couple of glitzy videos showing off a utopian future in which, with just a few clicks, we’ll be able to summon drones to rain down packages of up to 2.3kg from above. Chinese retailer Alibaba is already using drones to deliver tea.
With all of this expected air traffic, one question becomes obvious: how can we be sure that drones are safe? With the increase in drone usage, there has been a parallel increase in media reports about incidents involving UAVs. For example, they have been used to smuggle contraband goods into prisons, last October a drone hit power lines in Hollywood cutting off electricity for 600-700 customers, and there has even been a security alert at the White House when a DJI Phantom II quadcopter crashed in its grounds.
So how can we be sure that these machines won’t simply fall out of the sky, or collide with each other? Or what if terrorists attempted to use a drone for nefarious purposes? Just as over a century ago new regulations and technologies were created to get to grips with the increasing numbers of cars on the road, similar is now set to happen with drones - so here’s a round-up of what to expect.
Currently, if you buy a drone in the UK there is no need to register it. All that the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) demands is that you follow the ‘drone code’, which it promotes with an animated video on its website. Under the drone code, pilots are required to keep their drone within their line of sight at all times and may not fly in built-up areas or within 50m of people and buildings. Under existing rules, drones operated for commercial reasons all need to receive an official licence which the CAA calls a ‘permission’ to fly.
This could all soon change though. The CAA’s Richard Taylor says that the British government is due to launch a ‘wide-ranging’ public consultation on drone use in early summer. It will follow a more informal series of public dialogues involving both the CAA and the Department for Transport.
One potential outcome from the consultation could be mandatory registration of drones. This has recently been introduced by the CAA’s American counterpart, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The new rules require existing drone owners to pay $5 for a three-year licence, and give details of their name, address, and email. On registering, owners are given a unique identification number, which must be displayed on the drone in a place that doesn’t require tools to access. So if a drone crashes, it will enable the authorities to trace who it belongs to.
Rather than force drone owners to wade through a government website, the agency will later this year be launching developer APIs (application program interfaces) that will enable drone makers to build the registration process directly into their mobile apps as part of the set-up process. According to Taylor, registration could be one possible outcome from the UK consultation - but it would be up to the government to make that decision. The questions of whether or not any changes would require new legislation, and exactly which agency would ultimately administer such a system, are still rather premature.
Making drones safer
Perhaps the first place to improve safety is with the drones themselves. Since the White House security incident, DJI has released a mandatory patch for its drones’ software, which prevents them from flying over the restricted airspace in Washington DC and from flights near airports.
If commercial drones are to take off though, there is a more fundamental technological challenge: they will require new sensors to detect other objects in the air around them. And without them, it is unlikely that they will be approved for not having to obey the ‘line of sight’ rule described above. Taylor explains that prospective drone delivery companies “need to develop some kind of ‘detect and avoid’ technology that will allow their drones to fly autonomously and take avoiding action when confronted with airborne obstacles, such as birds, and other aircraft. That technology will need to be approved by European safety regulators and only then can the CAA integrate these drones into the UK airspace system to fly beyond line of sight.”
Aside from sensors, another way to make drones safer could be the power of the network. All of our devices are now connected, so why not have drones talk to each other too? The only problem is that such a system would require the different drone manufacturers and other stakeholders to work together on common standards so that one drone can understand any others.
Altitude Angel is a British company that is looking to step into the breach and provide the connective tissue. “This will allow for predictable behaviour in drones and allow us to give far more intelligent and energy-efficient de-confliction instructions,” says chief executive Richard Parker. “For example, ‘climb 10 metres, there is another drone three miles ahead that will cross your path shortly’, rather than ‘obstacle sensed in 30m perform 90 degree right turn’.”
His company provides two products. The first is a data API that enables drone apps to access mapping data on which areas are off-limits, and where they might have tricky flying conditions, down to street level. This means that if a drone is plugged into the system, when flying it will know, for example, that it isn’t allowed to fly over the Palace of Westminster (for example), however hard the pilot pushes on the thumbsticks.
The second product is a situational awareness capability, which will enable a drone to see where other drones are in real time. So even if the flight plan says to move to a certain place, it won’t if there is another drone already there. Whether Altitude Angel’s plans will take off remains to be seen: Parker says that monetising the product isn’t the key concern at the moment.
The business model is presumably to become an essential part of the drone eco-system and thus a tasty acquisition target, though it is likely that some sort of air traffic control standards will emerge as a number of companies are working on similar products.
In the US, PrecisionHawk and Exelis both have their own air traffic system in development, and it is thought that Google is also working on its own solution. Even Nasa is working on its own system - though Parker criticises it as “complex and reasonably ‘bloaty’ with lots of moving parts and requirements, infrastructural changes”.
Growing in tandem with UAV use is the UAV detection industry, as security-conscious organisations react to a changing threat landscape. A number of firms are now offering similar detection products that use different types of monitoring technologies to pick up when drones may be around.
German firm DeDrone’s DroneTracker uses a combination of acoustic, video, infrared and wireless signal detectors to spot incoming drones. They can identify not just that there is a drone in the sky (as distinct from other objects), but also what make and model of drone is being flown. It does this by using what the company calls DroneDNA - essentially an online database of drone ‘signatures’ - and when it finds a match will be able to tell users details like the range of the detected drone, and the payload it is capable of delivering. DeDrone says that the automotive firm Volke AG already has a DroneTracker deployed, and uses it to safeguard against any attempts at industrial espionage. A German federal prison has also recently installed the kit, to detect any illicit deliveries.
A French company called Drone Detector offers a similar product, but one that will also fire signal jammers if drones are detected. The firm says that once triggered (automatically, on detection), the jammer will jam both GPS and frequencies used to transmit flying manual controls, in order to disrupt drones however they are flown. Similarly, Airbus has recently announced its intentions to launch a counter-UAV system that will incorporate radar technologies too.
One day, the rule that says unmanned aerial vehicles must only be operated within line of sight of the operator may seem as ludicrous as insisting motorcars are preceded by a man with a red flag seems today. But before drones can reach a point where they are commonplace there are still safety questions to be met.
It seems inevitable that some sort of registration will eventually be required, and it seems like a no-brainer to establish a common air traffic control system. These advances will be welcome, and will no doubt enable drones to change our lives in ways that are yet to be imagined. But with this new technology comes new security challenges. And if we don’t address these concerns with parallel new technologies like drone detectors, then it may be difficult for the drone revolution to get off the ground.