Drones - the industry must stop its flights of fancy and grow up, says CEO

Chris Middleton Profile picture for user cmiddleton January 25, 2024
Summary:
Finally, some common sense has entered the drones arena. So, what needs to be done to help the good ideas take off, rather than the stupid ones?

drones
(Pixabay)

Good news for long-term readers of diginomica. There are signs that the drone market has finally moved out of its hype-filled infancy and into something more akin to a stroppy, less predictable adolescence. Across the board, there are flashes of structured, more grown-up thinking among start-ups – and, dare one say it, even of common sense. 

But first, a statement for the record. No one – least of all diginomica – doubts drones’ potential to bring positive, transformative change to many sectors and applications. Among them are media, entertainment, security, engineering, maintenance, surveying, mapping, sensing, disaster recovery, search and rescue, agriculture, and deliveries of essential supplies to remote areas. 

However, drone conferences over the past eight or nine years have often been full of absurd claims, and ideas that fail the common-sense test. The most obvious example (see diginomica, passim) has been last-mile air deliveries of packages within cities. Aka, thousands of non-essential items winging their way on thousands of noisy rotorcraft – an idea so colossally stupid, dangerous, and problematic for most city centres that it beggars belief that anyone would take it seriously. 

Meanwhile, some other ideas, such as autonomous air taxis, are based on a flimsy rationale that has yet to be tested by public opinion, regulators, and lawyers. More on that later.

So, it was a pleasant surprise to drop in on a Westminster eForum drone policy conference earlier this month to find not just one, but several speakers agreeing with what diginomica has been saying for years: that some proposals for drone technology are just really dumb ideas. The hype cycle, it seems, is ending. 

Wasting money and complaining

By far the most outspoken critic was Robert Garbett, Chief Executive of a specialist consultancy to civilian and defence clients, the Drone Major Group. 

He said:

There's a huge amount of enthusiasm about the industry’s potential, but this invariably leads to some crazy ideas and inventions. So [in that context], it's totally understandable that companies are either developing solutions for which there is no problem – the delivery of pizzas to your door. Or they are designing solutions for vehicles for which there is currently no infrastructure, such as unmanned flying taxis. 

Or, they are investing in applications that are not commercially viable, questionable as to whether or not they are safe, and certainly not socially acceptable. I'm talking about filling the sky with tiny drones to deliver Amazon parcels to every house in the kingdom.

Amen. And remember, this is the CEO of a commercial (air and sea) drone consultancy talking. Then he added:

Now, what an investor chooses to waste their money on is clearly their own business. But the first question is, have we been investing taxpayers’ money on projects with million-to-one odds, simply because we believed our own hype? And the second is, why is it the Wild West out there? Without clear direction and sensible priorities designed to encourage and enable drone commercialization, chaos has ensued.

Strong words. But could Garbett be more specific? He could:

Companies have believed that if they complained enough to the Civil Aviation Authority [CAA], they will be able to fly BVLOS [beyond visual line of sight] wherever they want, and do whatever they want. That is clearly wrong. And they imagine that if they run a successful trial, they're automatically going to be allowed to operate commercially. But that is very unlikely.

Or, they're only now realizing that the millions of pounds that they have sunk into a retail aircraft, which is going to be unmanned and carrying passengers around, won't be doing so for a very long time. Plus, it will need a pilot and a very expensive certification application.

On that point, I asked Westminster’s panel of experts what the point of an unmanned/autonomous urban air taxi would be, given that no data exists for piloted ones – beyond, say, traditional light aircraft or helicopters. What problem would an autonomous air taxi actually solve, if we have failed to trial piloted ones?

Remarkably, the question proved difficult to answer. Only Garbett himself offered:

It will eventually be more economical. No pilot.

In other words, it will be more profitable for the operator in terms of wages and energy (less weight). This may – or may not – make our theoretical air taxi marginally cheaper to hire; but my guess is it would remain a premium service. But that’s it. There is no other rationale. 

Will you get to your important meeting by air taxi quicker than jumping on the Tube or subway – safely, and in all weather conditions? If you can land on your destination’s roof, then perhaps. But if not, what have you gained beyond a long walk from a landing pad – assuming anyone has even built a supporting physical infrastructure, plus the software and an air traffic management system that is fully integrated with traditional flight?

Make no mistake, in some wealthy, sprawling, car-centric cities – Los Angeles, perhaps, or transferring from Queens to Midtown Manhattan – an air taxi could be an improvement for upscale customers. But for most cities, it is just not a sensible idea.

In the case of autonomous/driverless cars, of course, the thinking has long been that by far the biggest point of failure and death on our roads is error by human drivers. Indeed, they are responsible for an estimated 94% of the 1.2 million fatalities worldwide every year. So, remove the driver, remove the risk – in theory. Yet until there are 1.4 billion driverless cars (instead of 1.4 billion traditional ones) out there, it will be impossible to say if the statistic of one person dead for every 1,000 vehicles on the road has actually been reduced. 

By contrast, traditional air travel is far safer: just two fatal air accidents occurred in 2023, with Harvard researchers claiming that the chances of dying in an air crash are one in 11 million. In total, there are roughly 100,000 flights every day worldwide, carrying six million people. 

So, why is air travel much safer than road? Well, it is partly because there are far fewer planes and helicopters than cars, of course. But all that will change if we fill the sky with drones. Yet it is also because our airspace and aircraft are tightly regulated and managed, with technical and safety standards that have been developed across over a century of commercial flight and air traffic management. 

So, one thing is obvious: turning urban air transport into what Garbett called ‘the Wild West’ is far more likely to kill people than save them. Indeed, it could cause chaos – especially when you factor in the thousands of delivery drones that stupid people believe in. 

And that’s not all. An autonomous electric rotorcraft capable of carrying passengers would have far more points of failure than a piloted light aircraft. And standardized collision-avoidance systems would have to be built into every drone in the sky, regardless of manufacturer – including the thousands delivering pizzas, gadgets, and trainers, all of which could arrive by bike.

At this point, I would add a perspective of my own to Garbett’s: perhaps our belief that the future ought to look like Blade Runner (a dystopia) – rather than, say, a self-employed worker delivering parcels on a bike or a scooter – is holding us back. Call me old fashioned, but maybe having pizza delivered to your door by a local human is nice, while having to walk down 10 flights of stairs into the wind and rain to wave your phone at an airborne robot that has just maimed your cat is not. Especially when all you are doing is saving Amazon (market cap: $1.6 trillion) money. But I digress. 

A route to commercialization

So, where do companies get the insane idea that autonomous air traffic will be easy, and will magically solve a range of non-existent problems, without creating new ones – such as noise, nuisance, constant intrusion, and danger.

Garbett posed the question himself, and said:

Is it because we're not providing clear direction and clear standards? Or is it because we simply offer guidance and fund innovators to do these things?

Or is it the fault of the regulators, perhaps? You know, those bad people who – some ideologues believe – somehow stand between brilliance and progress? He responded:

If you ask anyone in the industry what's stopping commercialization in the drone industry, they will say, ‘Regulations have not been able to keep up with the speed and pace of technology change’. Or, ‘There aren’t enough regulations to allow us to fly BVLOS commercially’. But this is all wrong! 

For the record, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with our regulations. There are a few tweaks that can be made to improve efficiencies and take the pressure off the CAA – such as SORA [Specific Operations Risk Assessment]. But fundamentally, there is nothing in the regulations stopping us from commercializing drones.

So, beyond party politics, why do some people believe the opposite? Garbett said:

Is it because the regulator is overstretched, undermanned, under-resourced, and unable to cope with the amounts of applications for BVLOS – or even VLOS [Line of Sight] and EVLOS [Extended Line of Sight] – flights? That's probably the case. It is certainly a problem that’s causing investors and potential users to lose faith, and companies to lose a lot of money.

But is it also the lack of infrastructure? Over the past 10 years, we've put a huge amount of effort into trialling unmanned air systems for every conceivable application. But we wouldn't have dreamed of sinking millions of pounds into trialling, say, a train for every application, without first thinking, ‘Hmm, we also need a railway track.’ And, ‘We need some safety standards’. And, ‘We need to make sure it's operated properly’. 

But don't worry, innovators say. We're going to run a lot of trials on aircraft, and we’re sure that will be fine!

Well put. So, what needs to happen in the real world for the best ideas – the genuinely good ones – to take off? After all, anyone can complain about things, or point out their obvious flaws and absurdity. But where are the solutions for tapping drone innovations and turning them into viable businesses?

Garbett said:

If we don't communicate the standards required for some sort of digital infrastructure to underpin this industry – to underpin a safe, assured flight – how can we realistically expect the industry to commercialize? We need standards, but we don't seem very interested in developing those!

But is it also because we have an updated airspace model? Or because there are few incentives for investors and a lack of faith? Or, is it more about a lack of acceptable compliance standards and certification schemes? And a lack of harmonization between domains?

Implicitly, these are all obstacles that need to be overcome too. But then Garbett opted to accentuate the positive and offer some constructive solutions to the countless problems he had identified:

We need to refocus, and reprioritize on the development of infrastructure – digital and physical. And we need to have an eagle eye on commercialization concepts. And on applications that are, actually, commercially viable. 

If it's not commercially viable, don't do it! Or, if it's not feeding into something that's commercially viable, don't do it!

Of course, it also has to be safe. That's really, really important. And that’s where the CAA comes in, so they need much bigger resources. And [the innovation] needs to be socially acceptable. Simply filling the skies with millions of tiny drones delivering parcels and rubber gloves is not going to cut it!

That’s a strong Agree from us, and from anyone with an iota of common sense. Then he added:

However, the inability to clear applications for commercial operations, or even trials, is rapidly damaging the industry. It's putting key projects at risk. 

But it is no fault of the CAA. There's nothing wrong with their professionalism, and there's nothing wrong with the regulations. We must simply take the workload that the CAA has very, very seriously. And the opportunities of this industry very, very seriously. And we must look very closely at how we fund the CAA and how we resource them – in both the short and long terms.

Then he added:

We also need to rethink the innovation funding model in the UK. I’m sorry, but to my mind it's just not fit for purpose. Innovate UK do an absolutely fantastic job of delivering exactly what they are told to deliver, which is filling gaps in technology. But they are not responsible for, and not focused on, delivering commercialization. 

In addition, they're surrounded by supporting organizations created by BEIS [the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy] that are supposed to help us with trials. But to my mind, they offer questionable value and just take money out of the system. 

Innovation funding needs to be accountable. It needs to have a purpose beyond endless trials. And everything needs to be focused on commercialization. Otherwise, what is the point?

My take

Round of applause, please, for Mr Garbett. The UK needs more people like him who reject industry cant, and who are willing to state the obvious. 

Please, UK: less rhetoric about “world-leading superpower”, and more action to speed good ideas into real businesses that solve real, rather than imaginary, problems.

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