Unlocking the Potential of Drones: Automatic for the People
Updated: Feb 7
This series of articles will discuss the benefits of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the drive for autonomy and BVLOS operations, initially in drones, and then in the broader commercial aviation environment. It will explore some of the benefits that can be gained, the challenges that are faced, and propose some solutions to solve the most persistent and challenging problems. It will further explore the role of drones in a broader ecosystem, and how essential it is for machines and people to work as coherent teams, identifying the challenges and opportunities that this presents.
Automatic for the People – How Autonomy is Good for the Environment
Twenty years ago, Artificial Intelligence was, to most people, a negative concept. It conjured up images of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Skynet. Ten years ago, Artificial Intelligence was seen as something out of reach of the general public. Instances where it was used often created negative results – think early automated call centre systems with speech-to-text interfaces. Today, AI is seen as an inevitable future, a part of every home thanks to Amazon, Google, Facebook, et al. But is it seen as meaningful as well as convenient?
Autonomy in aviation offers significant opportunity for the industry to meet its Net Zero obligations. The Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI) states in its technology strategy Accelerating Ambition (2019) “We will push for more ambitious technologies such as electrification and autonomy to address sustainability and mobility challenges”, and in its 2020 Insight paper The Journey Towards Autonomy in Civil Aerospace further states that “autonomous flights have the potential to reduce fuel burn by 6% through optimised speed and altitude”.
But is that the limit of the benefits on offer?
Take the concept of drones used for delivering parcels. Today most packages are delivered in multi-drop vehicles, usually vans, often followed by a plume of black diesel exhaust. For drone deliveries to be routine and reliable, a clear need for autonomy is evident. Manned flights on a 1:1 basis would simply not be cost effective. Even larger drones replacing current manned aircraft or maritime deliveries will require reliable autonomous control to manage the beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) operation.
Humans cannot be removed from the loop entirely, but the ability to monitor and manage, rather than pilot and control will mean fewer human operators can control larger networks of devices. Research has shown that a person can only concentrate on controlling one drone, but could effectively and safely monitor many more than that.
Reliably and effectively enabling routine BVLOS operations has the potential to remove a significant number of polluting vehicles from the road. In the absence of a quantum leap forward in battery technology for vehicles, this seems like the most likely alternative.
To get to that future state will require a number of complimentary autonomous and AI-based systems to reach maturity. Firstly, the command and control of the drones themselves. Secondly, the airspace management, particularly during the “hybrid” phase where manned and unmanned aviation will be sharing the same airspace. Thirdly, the management of the logistics – matching cargo to appropriate platforms, optimising the use of assets, allowing for charge times, predictive maintenance, all whilst meeting a number of as-yet undefined regulations around flight corridors, noise, altitudes and separation minima to name a few. Finally, the integration of the systems of systems required to make everything work together in a resilient and assured manner.
But, get all of the above right, take advantage of the innovation and creativity that exists in industry today and there is a clear environmental upside – fewer vehicles on the roads, more efficient air transport, optimised multi-modal journeys, and AI-enabled electrification, manufacture and maintenance all help the challenging but essential journey towards a net zero future.
Archangel is committed to AI for good, deploying anti-poaching smart cameras in Africa, supporting suicide prevention on the rail network, and developing world-leading solutions to overcome some of the key barriers to automation for transport. To reach the final destination however will take commitment and collaboration. To start a conversation on this topic simply get in touch below. In the next article I will talk about how the use of autonomy and the integration of human/machine teams will support the airspace of the future.