Flight club: how drones can save lives and deliver our mail
15th Dec 2013 | 12:01
Amazon's Air Prime scheme changes the conversation
Up until a couple of weeks ago, if you asked the Average Joe about drones, he may have offered a description of clandestine, pilotless US military planes, flying over the Middle East, dropping their destructive payloads on suspected terrorists.
However, just recently, on a quiet Sunday night, the conversation changed thanks to Amazon and its imagination-capturing CEO Jeff Bezos.
The retailer plans to use fully automated, GPS-equipped, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) called octocopters to deliver small packages from the warehouse to the home within 30 minutes. Human involvement? Minimal.
Thanks to the irrepressible Bezos' revelation, a subject of intense interest for decades, among the massive community of UAV enthusiasts who're already wielding systems like the A.R. Parrott Drone and specially created vehicles for agriculture and filmmaking, has grown beyond its murky reputation.
Ladies and Gentlemen, the drones are coming home.
Beyond Amazon's pie-in-the-sky plans, it sure is interesting to think about the ways we will be using these systems that aren't centred around spying on the enemy and blowing things up.
Could UAVs become helpful home assistants, scooting across town to run our errands? How can they revolutionise search and rescue operations? Help us grow more food to feed a spiralling global population? Or help us chart the unchartered?
We'll get to all that, but to talk only about the future too much too soon is to ignore the present. There are plenty of people already using the technology for filmmaking, photography farming and surveillance. We chatted with some of them.
Dean Wynton, for example, runs a company called Aerosight, which uses unmanned aircraft to shoot lovely smooth aerial camera footage for the likes of BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Sky as well as a host of commercial and corporate clients.
Beyond his own endeavours, filming gorgeous sunsets or aerial panning shots, he told us: "I was approached by a television company thinking of running a series on people who operate drones to spy on drug traffickers and poachers."
Rory Paul operates Volt Aerial Robotics in St Louis, Missouri. He provides farmers with systems that enable them to keep an eye on the health of their crops without physically having to cover the ground.
"There are two applications in agriculture right now," he tells us. "Aerial photo mapping and then crop scouting. The end product of the fixed wing flights it's a photogrammetric map of a field. On the crop-scouting site, they get GPS-tagged images."
Michael Toscano, the president and CEO of AUVSI (The Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International), which has actually been around since 1972, sees agriculture as perhaps the key usage right now:
He said: "If I have a droid that can fly over a field of crop and tell me about the specific photosynthesis of that plant, I can tell which plants are healthy and which are not, I'll know which ones I need to treat. Rather than spraying the whole crop: I save money on pesticides, I save time and resources and it makes me a better smarter farmer."
The ability of farmers and filmmakers to use this tech comes as landowners or with permission from them. There are still strict regulations. Aerosight "can't go within 50 meters of any sensitive areas without special permission." And can't fly higher than 400ft.
Those regulations minimalise the potential for drones to be in use outside of quite specific areas, especially in built-up cities. Amazon itself had to film its proof-of-concept video for Prime Air outside of the US so as not to break the regulations!
All that may change in 2015 when the Federal Aviation Authority in the United States outlines its regulations on unmanned vehicles. It's what Amazon is banking on to get its Prime Air delivery plan off the ground – so to speak. In a couple of years, the skies may clear, from a legal standpoint.
After that the possibilities are endless, according to the UAV community.
The proliferation of drones in the years to come is all about enhancing "situational awareness," according to Toscano. "It's an extension of the eyes and ears of a person who knows how to do a job better than anyone else. It's all about giving good information to smart people to make smart decisions."
Examples? What about search and rescue? Fire-fighters will be able to send in the drones to search for hazards and people, before entering dangerous buildings, lessening the risk. Search parties can send out UAVs equipped with heat-seeking cameras to search for missing people in the woods. Human exploration could also benefit if we could collect data by sending drones with specially equipped sensors and cameras to volcanoes, for instance?
As Toscano says, the UAV itself is "just a truck. It's the data that it can collect that's important. It's the mission payload, the sensor system and the acoustic system that makes it such a great tool."
When Jeff Bezos described his plan a couple of weeks back, he made it seem like these machines would be ready to go tomorrow, if it were legal. Despite Jeff's optimism, those in the industry tell us it's a ways away yet.
Getting these machines up there, isn't the problem. It's keeping them up there and doing it safely that is of chief concern.
"These vehicles can fly for about 15 minutes at a time depending on weather conditions," said Volt Aerial's Rory Paul. "That's something that has relevance to Amazon because it's tied to battery technology. As long as we have limited battery life and capacity, the utility would be relatively limited. A whole lot of work needs to be done on that front."
"Unfortunately manufacturers tend to test these things in idyllic situations. As soon as the wind starts blowing, you're using more battery power to stay in the air."
Aerosight's Dean Wynton told us work is on going with lithium batteries, that are lighter and more powerful, but currently "it's a balancing act between weight and power, but there aren't a lot of multi rotor vehicles that fly longer than 20 minutes. That's the main problem. You can get a single rotor helicopter, but that's quite a big old lump and you can take someone's head off if it goes too close!"
Safety is another big concern for those sceptical of Amazon's plans as well as the notion that members of the public will be buying up drones in droves in years to come.
"For an unmanned system safety is paramount," said Toscano who assesses that agriculture will probably emerge as the key usage for the tech as crops don't care about noise and privacy and there's nothing for them to collide with for miles around.
"If you can assess there's no safety risk then you can utilise the technology," he said.
Could they really operate safely in metropolitan and residential areas? Avoiding trees, power lines, wildlife and, if this vision of the future is realised, a sky full of other drones?
Toscano is optimistic. He thinks, as with any new technology, there'll be a certain amount of "risk acceptance," like "every time you step into a car," while the privacy concerns will fade with time while the law can be relied on to handle those don't use the technology responsibly.
"Just because a car can travel at speeds of 150mph, doesn't mean you do it," he said.
However, Wynton said he's already concerned about the number of recreational drones dropping out of the skies because people can't operate them properly.
"Essentially these things are flying lawnmowers that aren't things you want to come face to face with. If one of the blades hit you, especially on the bigger ones, it could take off fingers," he said.
We've spoken a lot about the wider uses for drone technology, but how about in the home? One of the most intriguing elements of this discussion is envisioning a future where we all have our own drones, which we can send out, equipped with a mission and some GPS co-ordinates, to pick up our grocery shopping, run our errands and deliver our mail.
Surprisingly, there seemed to be little enthusiasm for domestic UAVs among our experts who struggled to see many real use cases for airborne drones around the old domicile.
How about home surveillance? Wired security cameras are more reliable and "it's definitely not worth spending a few thousand pounds to spy on neighbours," Dean Wynton joked while pointing out they wouldn't be much use around the house either.
Rory Paul agrees: "I don't envision them being in the home environment," he said. "If you're talking about the automated floor cleaners and lawnmowers then that's a different thing altogether."
It appears that we won't be sending off these droids on pre-set missions any time soon. There's far more interest in ground-based solutions, such as driverless cars, which Google is working on and plans for trials in the UK in Milton Keynes have already been announced.
"From a mobility standpoint, we have over six million accidents in the United States every year," said Toscano. "More than a third of those accidents, the driver never puts their foot on the breaks. So there's a lot of distracted drivers, there's a lot of people falling asleep and they're not very good drivers at all."
"This tech is coming fast and it's going to save lives."
Can Amazon pull it off?
While not doubting the capabilities of the technology, many in the industry view Amazon's plan as a well-timed publicity stunt (the revelation on '60 Minutes' aired on the eve of Cyber Monday), but Bezos insists the tech is real and it "will" happen. He estimates within 4-5 years Prime Air droids will be in the skies dropping off books, smartphones and other small items.
Others are more cautious.
"There's no way Amazon are going to be able to fly whatever they want, whenever they want. That's not going to happen," Dean Wynton of Aerosight, opines.
Rory Paul of Volt thinks the obstacles may be too much to overcome: "Knowing these systems and the amount of challenges it's going to take to deploy them, it definitely seems like a publicity stunt.
"You have to look at it commercially as well," he added. "Is it going to be more expensive to deliver a package using one of these systems with all the hurdles he's going to have to overcome, or is it going to be more efficient to hand it off to UPS like they do today?"
While accepting the trials that lie ahead for Bezos, Michael Toscano has a more positive outlook.
"With the maturation of the technology, there are still challenges that we have, but for the most part people understand we can fly these systems. If you look at it from a walk, crawl, run perspective, Amazon showed you the 'running.' That's where you have the ability to autonomously deliver something from point A to point B."
"As a delivery system there is a tremendous opportunity here, a tremendous capability here to be more effective, to reduce costs and in many cases, save lives."
- Read more on Amazon's drone reality