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Drone alone? How to safely exploit autonomous aviation

Chris Middleton Profile picture for user cmiddleton December 19, 2019
How unmanned aviation could be either a boon or a nuisance – depending on how well the technologies are managed.


Not everyone wants a drone for Christmas. From 19-21 December 2018, hundreds of flights were cancelled after reports of a drone flying near the runway at Gatwick Airport, putting planes and their passengers at risk. However, the exact nature of those events – whether fake reports, media hysteria, prank, malicious attack, hobbyist stupidity, or accidental loss of control – remains a mystery. Was a drone ever there?

One year on and the ghost of Christmas past still hangs over the drone sector. Not just in the UK, where its impact was felt in three days of cancelled flights over the festive period, but internationally as airport operators, airlines, airspace controllers and even defence organisations wake up to the reality of how easily an airfield can be locked down by a single incursion into controlled airspace. A stark example of market disruption by new technology.

At the time, Gatwick Chief Operating Officer Chris Woodroofe made the point: 

 I think what's clear from the last 24 hours is that drones are a UK aviation issue, or even an international aviation issue.

A counter argument

Indeed. But arguably, Gatwick was fantastic news for one industry: counter-UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) or -UAS (unmanned aerial system) companies. Alongside reports of drones being used to smuggle drugs into prisons, spy on the public, or attack public figures, Gatwick was just what the counter-drone sector needed to present the case for a coherent policy and technology response – not to mention make people reach for their credit cards.

Yet the counter-drone sector’s aim is not to knock the drone industry out of the sky – quite the opposite: it is to enable UAVs to be safely integrated into the crowded airspace above our even more crowded cities. Counter-drone technology exists alongside UAVs in the same way that cybersecurity tools have a symbiotic relationship with the cloud: it’s about enablement, security, trust, and safe integration.

In November 2019, for example, the UK’s Defence and Security Accelerator (DASA) awarded nearly £2 million across 18 bids to develop new capabilities to detect, disrupt, or defeat the malicious use of drones. Among the funded proposals were methods for detecting 4G- and 5G-controlled UAVs, dedicated machine learning and artificial intelligence systems, sensors, and ‘electronic defeat’ or interceptor solutions.

But it would be a mistake to fan the flames of hysteria by seeing UAVs as a threat alongside those malicious AIs, job-stealing robots, and Terminators that the tabloids obsess about in a media that equates technology with fear and risks stymying the  attempts to be a modern economy.

Unmanned systems have real potential to transform a huge variety of sectors in line with the revamped industrial strategy. Among these are: agriculture; engineering; critical infrastructure maintenance – both onshore and offshore; transport, logistics, and the supply chain; nuclear decommissioning; disaster response; medicine delivery; blue-light services; surveillance; climate monitoring; communications (for example, by putting temporary networks in the sky after a disaster); entertainment (via swarms of programmable illuminated drones); mapping and infrastructure planning; other aerial imaging; and defence.

Another is the airport sector itself: operators are keen to explore the use of unmanned systems to inspect and maintain runways and other facilities, just as companies like Rolls Royce want to use robots for remote jet engine maintenance in a service economy in which companies are paid whenever planes are in the air, not when they are on the ground.

The implications of all this should be obvious. How can drones operate safely and securely around piloted craft and sensitive facilities? And how can organisations be sure that drones flying in the vicinity are authorised, secure, safe, and overseen by competent humans?

The policy angle

So what of the policy response, which will be critical to spurring both the growth of commercial UAV services and public acceptance of them? That will vary from country to country of course. In the UK, in October 2019,  the Air Traffic Management and Unmanned Aircraft Bill was introduced to Parliament. Alongside giving new powers to the police, the draft legislation recognises that modernising airspace itself is critical to the safe introduction of unmanned aircraft into our skies.

While autonomous air taxis, drone deliveries, self-maintaining cities, and more, may offer isolated visions that are attractive and efficient, the potential reality of thousands of different unmanned systems filling the skies above our heads could create a noise nuisance and a safety nightmare – not to mention raise questions over the privacy and security of our homes and offices.

Drones need to be able to operate safely beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS). We also need to ensure that they are quiet and unobtrusive, are secure from cyber attack, present no physical danger to humans, can automatically avoid each other, and that a unified traffic management system (UTM) is able to manage airspace holistically while identifying each craft individually.

In this way, controllers can ascertain whether a drone is supposed to be there, is operating safely, and is not interfering with manned and other vehicles. That’s a lot boxes to tick, and even then the public may not accept this future. It also demands a level of standardisation and assurance that will be hard to bolt on to a fast-expanding industry dominated by Chinese hardware manufacturers.

Another factor that has yet to be mentioned at drone conferences is that most UAVs are rotorcraft. In other words, operators want to fill the sky with tens of thousands of rotating blades, which aren’t known for their friendliness to humans. Why this isn’t a higher safety priority is a mystery.

The controversy over the death of Elaine Herzberg under the wheels of an autonomous Uber in March 2018 still rumbles on, so imagine the controversy over the first child to be maimed or killed by the blades of an autonomous drone – with no human safety driver to blame for onboard system failures. Regulation also needs to cover software and firmware, as well as the obvious hardware challenges.

A year on from Gatwick, Dr Eamonn Beirne, Head of Emerging Aviation Technologies at the Department for Transport, spoke at a Westminster eForum event on drone regulation and airspace management. He said:

The right policy and regulatory framework is needed to unlock the full potential of drones and other emerging aviation technologies, such as urban air mobility platforms and greater autonomous operations – and all of these will be demonstrated by the Future Flight Challenge.

Launched in September, the £125 million Challenge is the latest such scheme to be introduced under the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF). Its aim is to spur new ways to achieve greener flight, innovative ways to travel, increased mobility, better connectivity, and reduced congestion. Like all such ISCF- and UKRI-funded initiatives, the Challenge is smart and well targeted, but woefully underfunded in a hyper-competitive global market.

A two-day Future Flight Challenge workshop will take place in February 2020. Attendees must show how they would attempt to solve one or more of the following problems:

  • The full range of drone applications is stifled by the absence of the physical and data infrastructures needed to exploit the potential of a global market.
  • There is a need to develop autonomy – to allow craft to operate safely BVLOS – while maintaining high levels of safety.
  • There is a need to develop use cases and operational frameworks for the adoption of autonomous air vehicles,
  • Current air traffic management systems are not scalable to embrace a huge influx of autonomous systems, both large and small.
  • To minimise aviation’s environmental impact, there is a need to move towards electric flights, perhaps by adopting new systems for short-haul and local trips
  • There is no innovation or development environment in the UK that allows real-world demonstration and evaluation of any of the above systems. Put another way, the UK needs a safe space to test and demonstrate these technologies en masse.

The demand is certainly there from industry, said Beirne.

The number of permissions keeps going up. In the UK, the commercial use of drones continues to grow strongly. I think it's now roughly around 5,500 permissions [for commercial deployments]. Back in the Spring it was around 5,000.

The key to safe commercial exploitation of this space will be to step back from the hardware and the technologies themselves and look at the sector holistically, he continued:

We should be thinking about airspace use rather than technology type. We shouldn't be pushed by technology. We should be thinking about the outcomes and what we need to do to deliver those. We need that approach to building the right framework to support that, so driving forward on UTM and the systems to support it [will be essential]. But public acceptance could still be a huge barrier. Demonstrating strong use cases and delivering the benefits to be gained will be key to bolstering public acceptance.”

Noise and the visual impact of drones are important but often-overlooked issues, he added. In 2018, Singapore allowed the testing of autonomous air taxis, but Beirne believes that there was no stipulation for operators to provide any data on noise from pilotless helicopters. The UK’s Future Flight Challenge and sandbox approach will explore all of these issues and more, he said.

Drones Uber alles?

Taxi services raise issues of their own, of course. We are all familiar with how companies such as Uber, Lyft, and the rest, have muscled into an on-demand road transport space that was heavily regulated, using rapid customer acceptance and lower costs to disrupt the market. That market has become fiercely protectionist in response, with some cities, such as London and Paris, kicking out the innovators.

Apparently innocuous technologies such as electric scooters and e-bikes have also posed problems. Last year, US technology epicentre San Francisco threw out several scooter companies – not for illegal behaviour, but simply because there were too many of them. Pedestrian spaces were becoming filled with hundreds of electric vehicles whose riders viewed traffic regulations as an irritant.

Replace scooters and taxis with fleets of delivery drones and pilotless helicopters –some operated by companies who want to own the skies aggressively, like Uber – and you can see the level of risk involved, unless holistic management and safety systems are put in place.

Jeff Bevan, Drone Policy Lead at the Airport Operators Association, is certainly aware of these challenges. He told eForum delegates that Gatwick has focused the minds of airport operators:

We don’t want an Uber of the sky, where the regulation takes too long to catch up with the innovation – I think that would be a mistake and I just don’t think we would be safe. We need regulation from the outset to allow BVLOS and autonomous drones. We are happy to see standards on track and identify so critical infrastructure can invest with confidence in detection equipment. We are also happy to see the extension of flight restriction zones and the drone operator registration scheme – but we would have liked that to be free of charge; it wouldn’t have been too much of a government money drain.

Airports are developing multilayered responses, so technology is important but we need to engage with our communities. We've taken on a lot of lessons from the prison service to identify common problems and launch sites, increasing perimeter patrols, things like that, so it's about a holistic approach to security. We're particularly interested in the idea of a national counter-UAV capability, which I think could take some of the burden off of our smaller aerodromes who potentially can’t invest in counter-UAV technology. 

But I do think the government could have gone further [in the Drones Bill]. Things like mandatory geofencing and mandatory remote ID, these will have to come in eventually as part of a unified traffic management system. So the Drones Bill is a useful catch-up for law enforcement [...] UTM will take time, but gone are the days when we could have something in the sky and not know about it.”

My take

This was a UK-hosted event, but the issues raised are international. Common sense will need to dominate in an environment where regulators have to deal not only with malicious intent, but also human stupidity, incompetence, accident, and technologies that are designed to keep heavy platforms aloft rather than avoid maiming people. There is vast potential in UAVs and evidence that regulators understand the technical and security challenges, but there is less evidence that people are asking the really obvious questions.

More on some unexpected opportunities and innovations in the drone sector in a separate report from the recent eForum event.

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