Cultivating trust in autonomous drone systems

It is a question that has kept many an aviation regulator all over the world awake at night.

How to keep the lower skies safe in the face of an explosion of drone applications that has seen all operators demand their share of the airspace?

Industries across the world are finding new ways to apply drone technology in their operations with a speed and alacrity that aviation regulators are struggling to keep pace with. According to respected drone market research company, Drone Industry Insights, the drone market is set to grow to $41billion by the year 2026, with the Energy, Cargo, Courier Services, Intralogistics and Warehousing industries leading the charge for highest adoption of drones; while Mapping and Surveying; Inspection; as well as Photography and Filming remain top industries for drone applications.

Crucially, the DII has it that, while Asia, China and Japan lead the market, South America and India are growing fastest at the regional and country levels respectively.

What this translates to is that – as industrial applications grow, most users will seek to reduce the cost of using drone technology in their respective industries – and one way of doing that is through automating the drones.

But how safe will it be for the people below and for other air traffic?

“Drones are becoming more accessible, and new ways of applications are being discovered, allowing for the saving of time and money, and contributing to (carbon dioxide) emission reduction,” said Ronald Schultz, keynote speaker at the Drone & Unmanned Aviation Conference 2022, held in Johannesburg last week. “For example, mapping drones can reduce time and money spent by 50 percent, while last mile delivery drones can reduce cost by 90 percent.

Benefits and savings performed by drones are estimated to stimulate further growth, and this brings us to the point where the lower airspace gets busy.

This raises questions about safe operations.

“But automation can be one of the solutions contributing to the UAV ecosystem development.”

Schultz is the Sales Manager at FIXAR Global, a Latvian manufacturer of tactical indoor and outdoor multi-purpose drones that can be applied for use in various industries. The company’s flagship drone, the FIXAR 007, has autonomous capabilities in which missions can be planned using the ground control system ahead of the flight, before the drone is set loose while on autopilot to execute the planned mission accordingly.

An operator will keep track of the mission by monitoring the ground control system – instead of manually manouvering the drone using a remote control like one would do with manually controlled flights – and will only make adjustments in case of emergencies, like sudden changes in weather.

Now, imagine if all the drones in the air today could fly autonomously.

Ronald Schultz

Complicated, right?

Because not everyone is a big fan of uncrewed tin birds flying without a pilot in sight. Even as his company advocates for drone autonomy, Schultz was not oblivious of the fact that there are some sections of society that are not comfortable with autonomous drones roaming above them.

In Schultz’s words, some of the people’s concerns include a general lack of information of how autonomous drones work; safety; privacy; data protection; noise and visual pollution; and impact on the environment and on wildlife.

Aside from the general members of society, there are operators too, who believe autonomous drone systems are difficult and expensive to operate.  

“Historically, new things come with a suspicion and fear of the society, and it is good as it makes creators examine and prove their solutions; as well as make them safe before they are launched.”

Despite these concerns, Schultz said there is a steady growth in autonomous drone systems, spearheaded by the defence, enterprise and logistics industries.

“The fastest growing drone markets – Defence, Enterprise and Logistics– are the ones utilising autonomous unmanned aerial solutions,” Schultz said.

“It gives a glimpse that autonomy will become more common in the coming years to secure the forecasted growth. As it is today, 50 percent of drone programs automate most of their flights, and autonomous flights will unlock expansion, especially in the Utilities and Agriculture sectors (DroneAnalyst 2021 Report Summary).

“Autonomous missions allow the execution of BVLOS flights that help the expansion of drones to applications that require long-range flights.

The FIXAR 007 can fly autonomously

“Autonomous flights can also help the introduction of delivery drone technology into daily operations; simplify utility inspections; and also cover greater areas of agriculture land, among many other applications.”

Schultz added that drone manufacturers are getting better at developing autonomous flight systems on their drones, which has helped sway public opinion in their favour – flight systems are safer than ever before, and medical drone logistics can be a witness to this.

Ever since medical drones made a landing in Africa in 2016, more and more countries have been adopting the delivery drones, whose operations rely on full autonomy since they have to travel well beyond the pilot’s visual line of sight.

Most importantly, there has been no reports of accidents involving the medical drones.

“A study of the social acceptance for urban mobility shows EU-citizen trust level for this application is growing; 54 percent show trust; strong confidence is shown by about 23 percent.

“Most people who show trust in these solutions see them as an inevitable and necessary step of development. Most positively, drone operations are seen for as important for emergency applications in urban environments, and are accepted in that application.”

Besides, as Schultz concluded, it is a good thing when people question new technologies, because it can only make them better.

And one way to do that is to remove the human element, which has been the bane of most accidents, especially of motor vehicles and most machines which are operated by humans.

“Humans in general make more errors than machines do; regardless of tasks, people are said to make on average 3-6 errors in one hour.

Data by the US National Highway Transportation Safety Administration shows that between 94 and 96 percent of car accidents are caused by human error.”

The introduction and perfection of automation technology can reduce these errors significantly, Schultz says. Indeed, autonomous drone systems developers in the logistics space – Zipline, Avy, Wingcopter, AerialMetric and Swoop Aero among them – have several safety features and redundancies that will allow the drone to return home, or land safely in case of an emergency.

The FIXAR 007, for instance, has a fixed-wing and rotor system, which allows for vertical take-off and landing; but also allows for the rotors to automatically kick in and carry the drone safely back home, if one or both fixed wings fail.

“One key difference that separates machine errors from human errors is the element of predictability. Machine errors are far more predictable than human errors, in part because they are systematic, and because the behavior of machines can be model.

“In drone technology, automation is necessary to reduce the possibility of human error – predicting and automating most steps along the flight route make it easier and safer for the user and environment.”

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