Drones continued to make headlines over the holiday season with the sales of toy drones on the rise, and commercial applications starting to take off including drones that delivered critical blood supplies in Rwanda. In Australia, Google ramped up its test site and Elroy Air secured $4.6 million seed funding for its drone start-up.
I know I’m not alone in imagining a day when drones crisscross a city, fertilize crops or run around inside a business, but if you’ve ever played with a drone, you know it’s hard enough to learn how to get the toy helicopter to take off, land and do a few in-air maneuvers without crashing.
Amplify the complexity of learning to fly that toy drone 1,000-fold and you’ll get a small glimpse into what it takes to make drones a viable transportation service for businesses.
For the past three years, Whitecap has had the opportunity to work closely with Drone Delivery Canada as they work diligently to develop all aspects of this technology for commercial use. As with any emerging technology, we’ve learned many new things along the way. Here are just a few of the challenges that have had to be considered as we develop software for this emerging industry.
Challenge # 1: Taking Control
Personal (or toy) drones use radio controllers to direct flight, and in military applications, pilots operate the drones across large distances. When you think about using drones to deliver packages for example, maintaining line of sight would be impractical, and even if it was practical, using one operator per drone would not be an economically viable option.
Unmanned Area Vehicles (UAVs) as they are called, need autopilot systems with limited autonomous capabilities to handle emergency situations safely. We’re talking about similar challenges faced to commercialize autonomous automobile driving, but it’s even more complex because we’re operating in a 3D space.
Challenge # 2: Houston, Can You Hear Me?
To make drones commercially viable, you need to be able to send commands to the drone in a way the drone can understand and execute, without depending on a handheld radio controller similar to the ones used by toy drones.
Sounds simple, right?
Well, it’s not. There’s no standard protocol or language for beyond line of sight drone communication, so you need to build one from scratch.
As we develop more and more uses for UAVs, we will need to develop different operating systems and software so we can tell the drone what we want it to do.
For commercial viability, UAVs need to be largely autonomous, with sensors to prevent in-air collisions and autopilot to control specified (and approved) delivery routes. But, UAVs also need to have limited ‘artificial intelligence’ so they know what to do if communications are lost, or if they get into trouble.
Challenge # 3: Hitting the Target
To take a package from point A to point B by air you need to be able to program flight paths that take into account existing aircraft, no fly zones and approved flight corridors, and of course weather conditions. And, you need to be able to hit a landing target precisely.
GPS satellite technology isn’t precise enough to get a drone to land on its landing pad, you need sophisticated software and hardware to touch down within a few inches of the safe, approved landing zone.
If you think it’s easy, just see how long it takes you to hit a small landing target in the wind with your personal drone!
And, we haven’t even talked about the need to build in intelligence to adapt to situations that could arise in flight like swarms of bees, birds, lightening strikes, or someone’s personal drone that they’re flying outside the approved areas.
It takes sophisticated programming to link autopilot software, autonomous flying, real-time flight details, weather and approved routing, to allow an object (like a UAV) to move through 3D space filled with obstacles, and reach a precise destination safely. Programming also ensures if a UAV gets into trouble it can take care of itself – without any help from operations center.
Challenge #4: Getting a Handle on Traffic
As more and more UAVs go into operations (and the projected growth of drone traffic is staggering), the need for drone traffic management becomes increasingly important. Low altitude flights, commercial airlines, and flight routes to protect privacy or sensitive areas all need to be mapped and controlled … and the drone put into service will need to be programmed to respect and adhere to those boundaries, even in emergency situations.
Any commercial drone system needs situational awareness systems, and to be capable of two-way communications with the systems in place to track and manage all aircraft flights. These systems predict potential collisions and advise of course alterations, so we need to be in constant communications to avoid accidents.
Challenge # 5: Fuelling Up
When shipping by truck, you can fuel up at any commercial station along the route, but drones rely on battery power to travel. Any company using drones will need to manage battery power and the lifecycle of batteries to keep UAVs in the air for short or long-haul trips.
And, while we’re talking about maintenance issues, with a fleet of UAVs you have complex maintenance requirements like those of a commercial airline, not to mention the tracking and reporting that regulatory agencies will require.
Challenge # 6: Keeping it all Secure
We’ve all seen television shows where drones are hacked and then threaten a person or a city. Any viable business solution would have to protect the drone from being intercepted and re-routed, or the cargo from being seized.
And, we all know when it comes to security, you must be vigilant to protect yourself on an ongoing basis from emerging threats.
Finding Solutions to Complex Challenges
I have no doubt drones will have a major role to play in the not too distant future as companies look for viable alternatives to get products from one depot to another, or supply remote communities when they are otherwise cut off, most often due to seasonal changes or other transportation issues. The reality is that using drones commercially is a highly sophisticated and complex challenge, with umpteen considerations to account for. Behind the scenes, there’s a lot of specialized software, logistics and even hardware development that goes on before any unmanned vehicle can take off. How privileged we are to be working with Drone Delivery Canada at the forefront of this emerging technology.