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Taran March @ Quality Digest


Don’t Call Them Drones

Featherless friends coming to an airspace near you

Published: Thursday, August 17, 2017 - 11:03

Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), those gadflies of airborne technology, are poised to sweep into our day-to-day lives. Does this take you by surprise? Like the lawn needing mowing (again), or your kid suddenly old enough for college, a swarm of drone innovations seems to have arrived almost overnight. But as business tycoon Warren Buffet once noted, “Someone is sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.” Where drones are concerned, the tree has been planted, and we’re moseying—some might argue sprinting—toward that shade. Here’s what’s been happening while your back was turned.

A technology whose time has come

Although some obvious commercial uses for drones are still emerging from a sea of regulations, they have become well established as a useful survey tool. Equipped with cameras and sensors, drones can collect data quickly and cheaply. They can, for example, zoom around an aircraft under production and scan for out-of-spec problems. They can survey a forest fire and report its progress to the ground crew. Once a fire is contained, they can use heat sensors to map its potential spread underground. They can snap photos of poachers illegally hunting in game preserves. They can assist in predicting tornadoes, finding land mines, inspecting miles of rail line, and taking water samples. In short, they can do many of the time-consuming and hazardous inspections necessary to keep civilization civilized.

Drone-delivered medicine in Rwanda

Perhaps the best industrial showcase for both innovative drone technology and as-yet-unsolved issues is agriculture. Agribusiness is keen to solve, or at least find workarounds for, nature’s unpredictable temperament and our own environmental meddling. Drones can help farmers take a giant step in that direction.

One promising project is underway at Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, where engineers have used the principle of cross-pollination in bees to make a drone that transports pollen between flowers. Aerial images of crops’ health can increase yields by proactively spotting pests and areas with inadequate irrigation. It costs an average $2 an acre to have a human walk a field to assess it before planting; drones can do it much faster for less.

The website World Agriculture reports that the ROI for a drone investment can have as short a turnaround as one crop season. However, with the better-equipped drones costing upward of $25,000, the technology is still out of reach for many operations.

Other disadvantages are connectivity, since not every 40-acre patch is wireless-friendly; short flight times between charges; and the time farmers must take away from their fields to wrap their heads around data analysis. And drones are a lot more vulnerable to damage than tractors.

At present, agricultural drone use is considered commercial. “This means the farmer needs to undergo Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) operator training so as to acquire a remote pilot certificate or hire an operator with such qualifications,” noted World Agriculture earlier this year. “One legal expert says as it stands today, using a drone in commercial agriculture is illegal.” Technically yes, but that hasn’t stopped the rise in demand for agricultural drones. So rather than enforcing outdated laws, the feds have been racing to create new ones.

Soccer ball delivery, May 2017, for the Portuguese Cup Final

Regulations catch up

On Aug. 29, 2016, The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) published its final rule, “Operation and Certification of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems.” The rule amended regulations to allow the operation of small drones in the National Airspace System. It also set out requirements for remote-pilot certification. In addition, the agency has given its blessing to six UAS research and test sites across the country—one each in Alaska, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Texas, and Virginia. The sites will gather “operational data to foster further integration, as well as evaluate new technologies,” according to the FAA.

Among the rule’s major provisions are the following:
• A UAS must weigh less than 55 lbs.
• It must remain in the pilot’s visual line of sight.
• It must not fly above 400 ft.
• The pilot must be certified to operate a UAS, and must conduct a preflight inspection of it.

There are other provisions, including obvious ones like “no careless or reckless operations,” but of particular interest to businesses involved in commercial delivery is this one: “Transportation of property for compensation or hire is allowed provided that the aircraft, including its attached systems, payload, and cargo, weigh less than 55 pounds total; the flight is conducted within visual line of sight and not from a moving vehicle or aircraft; and the flight occurs wholly within the bounds of a state.”

Where late the sweet birds sang

A golden eagle takes out a drone during a training exercise in France.

On that ruling hangs the fate of aerial tranquility, such as it is. The visual line of sight stipulation, as well as one that prohibits operation “over any persons not directly participating in the operation,” are still hurdles to overcome, at least in the United States, but they haven’t stopped Domino’s from forging ahead last year with aerial delivery startup Flirty and sending a pizza from one of its New Zealand storefronts to a nearby airfield:

“New Zealand has the most liberal commercial drone regulations... about one to two years ahead of the U.S.,” says Flirty CEO Matt Sweeny. The company started out delivering textbooks to remote areas of the Australian Outback. Betting on short-distance, convenience deliveries as the logical wedge into the U.S. market, Flirty has also partnered with 7-Eleven and moved its headquarters to Nevada, where drone testing is a going concern.

The mighty Amazon hasn’t been idle, either. Finding UAS restrictions more lenient in England, the company has spent time there working out the bugs in a delivery system it’s calling Prime Air. As early as 2013, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced plans to deliver packages via drone by 2018, and in 2015 the company opened a testing facility on the outskirts of Cambridge, England, in partnership with the British government. The following year, in December 2016, Prime Air successfully delivered a small package to a test participant’s garden.

This past June, Amazon patented plans for “multilevel fulfillment centers,” to be built in urban areas. “If Amazon has its way,” writes The Guardian’s Sam Levine, “cities around the U.S. will have vertical drone centers shaped like giant beehives in the middle of downtown districts, allowing the online retailer to coordinate speedy deliveries by unmanned aircrafts.”

Diagrams from Amazon’s patent for multilevel fulfillment centers. Click here for larger image.

To get around slow-moving U.S. regulations, Amazon will begin by delivering packages where countries’ regulations allow them to do so. “We will deploy when and where we have the regulatory support needed to safely realize our vision,” it asserts in its FAQ section. “We’re excited about this technology and one day using it to deliver packages to customers around the world in 30 minutes or less.”

Britian may be one of the first countries with the service, as this promotional video seems to indicate:

Personally, I hope the technology pulls ahead on the noise factor, maybe working with Microsoft’s Ashish Kapoor, principal researcher of a silent glider that uses artificial intelligence to assess wind currents and turbulence to stay in the air as long as possible. If we’re going to be surrounded by swarms of drones fetching and carrying, then figuring out how they can do that quietly would be a great boon to anything with ears.

Here’s the sound of your average UAS:

Remind you of anything? The term may exasperate engineers, but since humans are hardwired to make associations, we call them “drones” for a reason.


About The Author

Taran March @ Quality Digest’s picture

Taran March @ Quality Digest

Taran March is a retired editor for Quality Digest. A 35-year veteran of publishing, she has written and edited for newspapers, magazines, book publishers, and universities. 


They be "drones"

Human nature being what it is, until someone comes up with another simple, but sexier or cuter, name they will be drones. Unmanned aerial vehicle, or even UAV just does not roll off the tongue.