Please note: the technical term for drones – ‘unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)’ – will be used throughout this blog post.
Although The SkyBound Rescuer Project wholeheartedly encourages the integration of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) within search and rescue (SAR) practices, this blog post focuses on the key limitations pertaining to this technology. The development of any new technology inevitably brings with it several limitations, it is important for the response community to be aware of said drawbacks in order to plan for the use of UAVs effectively. Only an overview of the key restrictions will be discussed, each topic will be explained in more detail in later blog posts, sign up for email subscriptions to be notified of these upcoming posts.
“Most of the barriers of potential usage are governmental and regulatory.” (MarketLine, 2014)
The main inhibitor of the UAV market is the lack of regulatory infrastructure in place. Aviation authorities around the world have rightly been concerned about mixing manned and unmanned vehicles. However, in recent years, there has been an increase in pressure from the industry to push back the barriers. Different organisations have dealt with these pressures in differing ways. For example, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) in the UK introduced CAP-722 for commercial operations, whereby a UAV pilot completes a theory examination, submits an operations manual, and then performs a practical examination; resulting in Permission For Aerial Work (PFAW). The CAA is the “statutory corporation, which oversees and regulates all aspects of civil aviation in the United Kingdom” (Wikipedia, 2010), thus they are responsible for ensuring that unmanned aerial systems (UASs) operate safely in the national airspace system (NAS) within the UK, hence their continued efforts to develop an efficient regulatory framework with the express aim of reaching seamless integration between manned and unmanned aircrafts in the UK by 2028. Their main predicament is to address the unique characteristics of UASs, which are currently hard to determine and pre-empt due to a lack of data.
As a myriad of governing bodies scramble to keep up with the technology, one thing is clear, pertinent licensing is starting to apply. UASs pose several licensing challenges that affect their ability to operate safely and routinely in the NAS. Currently, UAVs require a modicum of skill to efficiently pilot them, yet are consistently operated by consumers without a recognised certification. As the requirement of a commercial UAV license becomes more publicly known, the amount of uninformed pilots should decrease, hence promoting safe flying.
Notably, UAVs in the UK (and the majority of other countries) – even for the emergency services – are yet to receive permission for beyond visual line of sight flying. The ability to fly a UAV to an incident ahead of response vehicles stands to seriously augment this technology’s potential for SAR. Alas, that luxury remains reserved for military purposes only.
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Technology constraints continue to hamper the short-term potential of UAVs. The most notable technological challenges include autonomy and crash-avoidance software.
Navigating through a set of specified waypoints on its own is often regarded as autonomy, however these capabilities are more in the realm of autopilot. An analogical example being the difference between cruise control and a self-driving car. Hence autonomy, despite popular belief, is far from feasible at present.
With regards to collision-avoidance, Marketline stated that:
“Humans still do not fully understand the mathematical foundations of how groups of flying objects (like birds) avoid mid-air collisions. MIT researchers suspect that there is a critical speed limit that all flying objects might need to abide by, no matter how good their senses are.” (MarketLine, 2014)
On a manned aircraft the pilot is responsible for detecting and avoiding potential collisions, unmanned vehicles need a solution with equivalent accuracy.
Although significant time and effort from various organisations have been focused into researching, developing and testing detect and avoid systems; no technology is yet to suitably meet the requirements needed for the NAS. The sky is voluminous and these vehicles are small; furthermore, flying objects can move in all directions; but this technology, if one day successful, may be the most advanced aviation technology yet.
Advancements on crash-avoidance solutions wields huge potential in persuading aviation authorities on the feasibility of beyond visual line of sight missions, thus offering vast opportunities for SAR practices.
UAV technology is marred with controversy due to its military roots; evoking strong, negative connotations. As a result, the UAV industry is in the midst of a massive rebranding campaign whereby companies are striving to convince the public that UAVs can be used off the battlefield in uncontroversial ways. This on-going desire to shake off the ‘hunter-killer’ image is epitomised through the industry’s reluctance to reference the vernacularism that is “drones”. Over the past few years, the term “unmanned aerial vehicle” or “UAV” has become common lexicon within the industry.
However, much to the industry’s dismay, UAVs are more widely renowned by their colloquial name of “drones”. This term could be simply attributed to these devices’ simple, repetitive nature. Conversely, Mike Rickett, the Deputy Senior Vice-President at SELEX ES, gave a different view on how this term came into vogue. During his presentation at The Commercial UAV Show 2014, Rickett claimed that this term derived from the military UAV, The Queen Bee, where he smugly explained, “Although, ironically, drones are male bees, not females”. (Rickett, 2014) The Queen Bee was extremely successful during 1935, with some impressive features for its time; a 300 mile range, 100 mph speed, 17,000ft ceiling, to name a few. The derogative nature of the word “drones” derives from the type of missions The Queen Bee was built for. In short, it was a killing machine. Four hundred of these hunter-killers were produced resulting in a prodigious amount of destruction. The repercussions of The Queen Bee are still a major hindrance for the commercial sector because UAVs have since become synonymous with this role. The sector’s long opposed use of this term was exemplified during a UAV industry convention held at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, with the not-so-subtle WiFi password: “DontSayDrones”.
When flying in public places, it is not uncommon for a UAV pilot to be bombarded with questions similar to “why are you filming me and my family!?” As a UAV pilot myself, I assure you we aren’t filming you or your family, we’re probably filming that sunset over the calm evening sea that you were also taking photos of on your mobile phone.
Emergency services are not immune to these accusations, mainly because the UAVs that the police forces and the like are flying do not indicate their purpose, i.e. they can’t be easily attributed to police use. There was an incident in Puddletown, Dorset, England, where Dorset Police flew their DJI Inspire for a demonstration near St. Mary’s Middle School, which instigated phone calls to the school regarding the children’s privacy/safety with demands that the Police were made aware!… *sigh*
IT’S NOT ALL BAD…
Despite the limitations to UAV technology, it can be said that the current state of UAVs “resembles the early days of manned aviation where innovation and entrepreneurial spirit spawned a new market.” (Casos, 2010) This gives hope in the resolution of present impediments.
Plus, with tech Giants like Google and Amazon joining the UAV industry and the sort of money that they can deploy, the market could see major breakthroughs in UAV developments in years to come. Additionally, their sheer interest in the UAV market legitimises the efforts of the smaller companies, ultimately encouraging the continuation of UAV development globally. Google could also act as a catalyst for opening up UAV regulations. Ryan Calo, a UAS regulator expert at the University of Washington, explains:
“To a far greater degree than Amazon, Google has a history of working with policymakers and stakeholders on technology reform…Adding Google’s voice could have a significant effect on regulatory policy towards drones.” (Madrigal, 2014)
Furthermore, Google and Amazon could help persuade the general public that UAVs hold the potential to bring about serious societal benefits. Andreas Raptopoulos, owner of the UAV company Matternet, told ‘The Atlantic’ that:
“We refer to our adoption curve as before- and after-Amazon. Things have really shifted in people’s minds. People have started thinking at the corporate and organisation level. There is an opportunity to solve a big problem. And I think Google’s announcement will accelerate that even further.” (Madrigal, 2014)
To summarise, Google and Amazon’s involvement could potentially solve many of the restricting factors. Their positive influence could quite possibly filter into the SAR sector; encouraging beyond visual line of sight missions and seeing lifesaving UAVs ubiquitously in the sky.
If you have anything to add or questions to ask or recommendations for future research blog posts, please don’t hesitate to use the comment section below. Don’t forget to sign up for email subscriptions, so that you’re always up-to-date with the world of SAR UAVs!
Casos, D. G., 2010. Unmanned Aircraft Systems: Strengths and Weaknesses [online]. New York: Nova Science Publishers.
Madrigal, A. C., 2014. Inside Google’s Secret Drone-Delivery Programs. The Atlantic [online], 28 August 2014. Available from: http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/08/inside-googles-secret-drone-delivery-program/379306/?single_page=true [Accessed 20 November 2014]
MarketLine, 2014. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles The economic case for drones [online]. N/A: MarketLine. ML00017-024.
Rickett, M., 2014. The Then, The Now and The What Could Be [PowerPoint]. London: The Commercial UAV Show 2014. Unpublished.
Wikipedia, 2010. Civil Aviation Authority (United Kingdom) [online]. Wikipedia. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civil_Aviation_Authority_(United_Kingdom)#cite_note-1 [Accessed 14 October 2016]