Drones 2023 - what enables or prevents their take-off at scale?

Chris Middleton Profile picture for user cmiddleton February 1, 2023
The latest developments in unmanned aviation raise some interesting questions about the possibilities and challenges involved in filling the skies with drones.

Image of two drones

While the drone market tempts writers to reach for puns about buzz and take-off, there are countless obstacles to overcome before many applications stand a chance of being viable. 

Among them are safe airspace integration and air traffic management – with the potential for many more unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) being flown in our skies daily than traditional aircraft, a topic I have explored previously on diginomica.

In the UK, those numbers are already soaring, despite UAVs remaining a relatively niche area at present. According to Kevin Woolsey, Co-Head of General Aviation and Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems for the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), 500,000 people are already signed up with the CAA’s Drone and Model Aircraft Registration and Education Service (DMARES), with 7,000 more operational authorizations being processed every year.

However, with many of those being in recreational, hobbyist, or ‘occasional’ pro applications – one-off commissioned flights rather than constant services – that doesn’t mean that hundreds of thousands of unmanned vehicles are (yet) in the sky every day. 

But Woolsey told a Westminster Business Forum on drone commercialization this week:

The numbers of pilots and aircraft in the RPaS sector [remotely piloted aircraft systems] are already 80% larger than the general aviation and commercial sector added together.

Now fast forward to the promised future of UAV services at scale, including autonomous deliveries, urban air taxis, and unmanned cargo, and you have some sense of the potential impact on industries and lives – both positive and negative. 

Woolsey added that, at present, many providers are individuals, sole traders, or small enterprises – local building inspections or aerial photography services, for example. That’s a very different proposition to managing the UK’s airspace for commercial aviation. But all that seems likely to change. 

Other challenges include the complexity of enabling Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) flying for remotely piloted drones. This includes safety, power to weight ratio, in-air avoidance of other aircraft, and more. Meanwhile, even more complex issues surround autonomous drones sharing the skies safely with both traditional and remotely piloted craft.

Woolsey said:

When we look at the what's popular at the moment, enabling BVLOS in non-segregated airspace, you'll find nothing in the regulations that's preventing this activity. So, manufacturers working alongside aviation standard bodies must develop a technical capability. 

That's what I mean by the technical challenge [being important]. ‘Detect and avoid’ is a good example of the capability that needs to be developed by industry.

Sensible use cases

John McKenna is CEO of see.ai, a UK company founded by ex-Apple, CERN, McLaren, and hedge-fund coders, backed by Boeing, and focused on developing the software layer for the BVLOS command and control of large UAV fleets.

He singled out a use case that reveals the potential for drones’ transformative benefits: aerial inspections of the electricity grid. He said: 

Companies all over the world spend billions of pounds, billions of dollars, on this particular use case, and 95% of the time it's on using helicopters. 

When we think of the future transition to doing the same type of inspections [with drones] including via autonomous systems, we can see that it would be a lot more efficient than helicopters, safer, and with radically lower emissions. And because the system might be automated, we could enable the capture of very specific, close-quarter data in a very structured way.

This makes perfect sense, and it stands to reason that using drones would also be dramatically cheaper than hiring and fuelling a piloted helicopter. This general principle also applies at or under the sea, where the use of autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) could save billions of dollars and countless hours in the hiring, crewing, and operation of ships and diving teams to inspect offshore facilities or undersea pipelines.

Applications like these would be a sensible place to start, continued McKenna:

One of the reasons [power-grid inspection] is an interesting use case to address in the early days [of this market] is because, by flying close to the grid, we're flying in airspace that is less used. And so, there's a strong argument from a safety point of view to say it should be one of the earlier use cases allowed.

This would also apply to the rail and road networks, in construction, emergency services, and in power generation – and that includes nuclear, oil and gas, and speciality chemicals. Then, in time, we'll see use cases expand from the industrial domain into logistics and eventually into mobility.

Perhaps, on the latter point. 

He added:

It’s a huge opportunity for the UK, and particularly for an independent UK. We see in the US, the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] is quite stalled on the concept of BVLOS operations. So, for the UK at this point in time, we're particularly well placed to be able to capitalize on it. And increasingly, we see that these systems will be critical not just to national competitiveness, but also to national security.

Big picture challenges

Excellent points. But while huge opportunity is there, the UK faces some specific challenges, including a much smaller landmass than the US or China, which means drones much closer to people’s doorsteps.

And there are financial hills to climb, he warned. McKenna said: 

The tax regime for start-ups is very good, but for scale-ups, the venture scene in the UK is really a long way behind the US. And this particular industry, aviation and aerospace safety, is extremely expensive. There's a high barrier to entry and high levels of complexity. It's capital intensive, and the standards are – necessarily and rightly – extremely high.

In short, it’s relatively easy to start a company in the UK, but very hard to grow it. And it’s especially hard to find investment that falls into the ‘tens of millions’ gap between angel funding and large-scale private equity. This is not just a problem for the drone sector, of course, but for all technology start-ups and scale-ups. 

One made more acute by the loss of accelerator and start-up growth network Tech Nation this week. The organization’s DCMS grant has been passed, astonishingly, to a division of Barclays Bank, surely creating conflicts of interest in the FinTech space, risks of anti-competitive behaviour, and, on the face of it, the prospect of legal challenges by other banks. A staggering own goal by the government, which defies any explanation beyond ‘it was costing the taxpayer money’. Some things have a greater value than cost.

Back in the drone sector there are other big-picture issues, such as the overall regulatory environment, international standards, security – a hacked drone would be a dangerous thing – and building a supporting infrastructure that would be both physical and technological. 

And that is without even considering those issues that are beyond human control: the weather – especially high winds and rain – seasonal temperatures, and atmospheric or electromagnetic changes, which might affect signal reception. 

Consider: an autonomous or remotely piloted craft is in the sky, but the network drops out and it is lost in mid-air, flying towards a light aircraft. What happens next? Or the drone hits a bird or powerline and falls towards traffic. Who is responsible?

A wait and see approach

As we have seen, some lower-risk applications of UAVs are obvious: sending up a piloted drone to inspect a bridge, for example, or to patrol a disaster area, put an emergency network in the sky, or carry out search and rescue. And of course, their use in the media and entertainment for photography or synchronized displays are already well established.

But what about adoption of drones at scale for more day-to-day services, such as deliveries? How realistic is that future vision? And, importantly, is it desirable?

The UK’s airspace strategy has a headline aim: quicker, cleaner, quieter journeys – an ambition that embraces electric piloted aircraft too, of course. Stuart Lindsay is the CAA’s Head of Airspace Modernization. He said:

It means something. It means that it was something we needed to get out there and explain what we are trying to do.

But first and foremost, as you would expect from an independent aviation regulator, it’s about maintaining high levels of safety. And second on the list is integration of the diverse users and trying to make the airspace fit and better for everybody. 

We're trying to supervise it, remove some of the complexity where we can, make it more efficient, and genuinely trying to thread into it environmental sustainability. But, that does not mean an airspace that won't make noise, and that does not mean that you get rid of all CO2 emissions. But you can do a lot to try and make those things better.

Noise-nuisance has yet to become an issue at scale, but were urban drone deliveries to become a reality – an application that solves few problems that can’t be addressed by electric vehicles, except in remote locations – noise and intrusion could rapidly become real problems. Especially when (as previously reported by diginomica) per-flight drone insurance would incentivize operators to fly over quiet spots, like parks or residential areas.

The real challenge is that this is not an issue that technologists, service providers, regulators, or airspace managers feel compelled to engage with. The message from industry seems to be: let’s see what the public, local, and/or national government will tolerate. 

In other words, it will be someone else’s problem until people protest about noisy rotorcraft swooping past their windows day and night, or ruining the tranquillity of green spaces. However, common sense suggests that the issue is given far more policy consideration up front to avoid pitting innovators against the very people they claim to be helping.

After all, aren’t drones supposed to make life better?

My take

As ever, a fascinating discussion. And while there are strong signs that common-sense applications of drone tech could be transformative, safe, efficient, sustainable, and save big money, the future world they usher in is less certain. Engagement with what that world will actually be like remains essential.

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