The possibilities and applications of drones

With the help of David Owens, our chief drone pilot, we recently talked about drone laws in the UK. David offered so much interesting information that it was hard to fit it into one article, so, having examined the laws, we’re going to look more at the operation and applications of drones today.

What level of autonomy is currently possible with drones?

At the moment, we can fly autonomous missions with drones, as long the drone remains within visual line of sight (VLOS) at all times, with software like PIX4D or Mission Planner. However, the remote pilot must be ready to take control in case of an emergency. The remote pilot must also follow the ‘see and avoid’ principle, actively watching for other air traffic at all times.

Many modern drones have a level of autonomy. For example, the operator tells the drone where to go, and the drone manages how to get there, manoeuvring around buildings and trees and taking care of keeping itself in the air. The drone can also return home and land itself if its battery is running low. This is all fine as long as VLOS is maintained throughout.

However, the operator needs to stay focused and monitor the drone at all times, so they can react if something unexpected happens. A drone’s autonomous systems can lower the stress on the pilot, but we’re not yet at the point where drones can be left to operate themselves entirely without supervision. Ideally, given a destination, future drones would be able to get there safely without the need for constant conscious monitoring, or the need to maintain VLOS.

Going by SAE International’s levels of driving automation (which run from 0 to 5, where 5 is ‘completely automated’), it’s currently accepted that most commercial systems are at level 2: the drones can operate themselves, but they need to be supervised by a human at all times. We’ll talk more about the levels of automation in a future news post.

The plan for the drones we’re building for Darwin is to have all the autonomous systems duplicated on board, so there’s a backup to take over if the main system somehow fails. We’re also carrying this principle of redundancy over to the physical aspects of the drone; the drones can operate on four motors, but they’ll have an additional four motors as a backup. If there’s an issue with one of the motors, we want to make sure the drone will still be able to return home or land in a controlled way.

Autonomous systems can be used to bolster safety as well as to aid in flight. Our drones will have presence detection on all sides, so the drone can detect danger and stop itself if it somehow gets too close to an obstacle. As the UK’s detailed drone laws and restrictions demonstrate, it’s important to consider safety at every stage of drone operation.

What are the potential uses of drones?

The obvious commercial possibility of drones is using them for product delivery, and that’s an area we’re interested in at Darwin. Of course, some products are too heavy or bulky to be carried by drone, but many items are feasible candidates for drone transportation. In 2016, for example, a spokesperson for Amazon said that 90% of Amazon sales are products weighing 2.3kg or less, as mentioned in a Guardian article about drone delivery.

In order to run a delivery service using drones, it’s useful to have certain permissions from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). For example:

  • An Operational Safety Case permission to fly beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS), i.e. more than 500 metres from the drone operator.
  • Permission to fly within 50 metres of buildings. Without this permission, you need to keep your drones at least 50 metres away from any building that isn’t under the control of the remote pilot, which creates obvious obstacles for drone delivery.
  • Permission to carry hazardous substances. You’d need this permission if you plan to transport, for example, lithium-ion batteries, which are often included in mobile phones or laptop computers.

To get any one of these permissions, you’ll need to write a detailed Operational Safety Case, providing evidence of the safety measures and risk management systems you have in place, which would need to be approved by the CAA.

More crucially, drones can be used to save lives. Although they can’t transport people, they’re not restricted by regular traffic in the way that, for example, an ambulance would be, and some can travel at 50mph or more. This means they can very quickly deliver urgently needed medical equipment, or supplies that can’t stay outside a particular temperature for too long: blood or vaccines, for example. As blood and vaccines would be classed as hazardous substances, you’d again need specific permission from the CAA to do this.

A drone equipped with a defibrillator could fly to the scene of a cardiac arrest, with instructions included, so anyone at the scene could use it in an attempt to bring the patient’s heart back to a normal rhythm. The BBC has a short video from 2017 on the research being done in this area.

Drones can also be used to help rescue lost people, and they can do this in a couple of different ways. If someone is lost on a mountain, for example, a drone with cameras or thermal sensors would be able to survey the area more efficiently than ground vehicles or people on foot, and could be deployed more quickly than a helicopter.

In addition to this, drones can aid lost people by providing connectivity. If someone gets lost in an area without mobile phone coverage, they can’t call for help. However, a correctly equipped drone could temporarily carry phone service into the area – essentially a complete network in a box – and allow them to make an emergency call. The stranded person can explain where they are, ask for help and request anything they need urgently while they’re waiting for rescue (food, water, medicine or blankets, for example), which could then, again, be transported to them using a drone.

There are many other uses of drones. For example, they can be used for filming or aerial photography. They can be used to monitor or map areas that would be difficult to get a full picture of from ground level, or areas that humans can’t enter without taking safety precautions, such as construction sites, mines or sewers. They can gather visual information from cameras, but they can also give a fuller picture of an environment by using, for example, temperature or humidity sensors. Drone technology is an area with huge potential, and we’re excited to be working with drones at the Darwin Drone Lab.

Darwin Innovation Group is a UK-based company that provides services related to autonomous vehicles and communications. If you’re interested in working with us, take a look at our careers page. If you’d like to know how we can help your organisation make use of autonomous vehicles, contact us. You can also follow us on LinkedIn or Twitter.

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