Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Drones : New Technology Brings New Challenges

The other day, I went to the running track at Nad Al Sheba cycle park where I always go twice every week to do my workouts. Much to my dismay and surprise, a man stood at one end of the track nonchalantly flying a bloody big bugger of a hexacopter.  It was extremely noisy, and had a camera on it.

Given the fact that an RC airfield was right next door, I didnt understand why this man would be flying in a public park. At one point, this machine was directly above my head and if I were in a mood to have a chat, I'd have cut short my run, gone upto him and made him aware of the unpleasant safety (and privacy) situation he was creating.

To put it short, I had absolutely no knowledge of him nor his flying skills. The park itself had no instructions posted banning the practice of flying drones. With no system in place, who was responsible if I got hurt? Would it be the drone pilot? Would it be me for venturing under the drone? Or would it be the park authorities?

What I just described to you is most probably the tip of the ice-berg. If media pundits have called 2014 the year of the Drone, 2015 must be the year of drone mischief and it surely is gathering critical mass.

Here last week, the busiest airport in the world came to a halt for almost an hour until authorities could figure out how to control the situation of a drone flying into the Dubai airport's airspace. Yesterday, some guy crashed his into the White House property provoking Obama to step up and issue a statement.

I'm not entirely foreign to drones, as I lived the hype cycle a bit myself last year when I joined a small group of individuals to take part in the UAE Government sponsored Drones For Good competition. Participants were asked to come up with ideas on how drones could positively change the lives of people and communities.

We submitted entries for a pollution controlling drone and a Drone Center, a less complex way of stating the obvious , that there was a big void in an air traffic control system for these new vehicles. We worked hard night and day to prepare and submit proposals. None however made the cut into the semi-finals.

Judging from the newly released statement by the competition committee that over 800 entries were received from both national and international entities, a lot of people seem to be busy poking at the cash cow. Incentive based competitions are just that. They bring in a great pool of thinkers vouching for a chance to prove a concept and if they make some money with it, all the better.

Now a number of these drone ideas are frankly solutions looking for a problem. For example, there's arguably little commercially competitive need for window cleaning drones, especially if there's little assurance of safety compared to present systems.

And that idea of delivering books to your door step, good luck if you haven't considered how you're going to go from Point A 80ft high in the air through point B a row of houses, point C a gate, point D a tree, point E a dog house and point F, the front doorstep of someone's house.

Some "innovators" though have posted interesting thoughts, ranging from forest building, fire control to crop surveillance for farmers.

If you, as I did, sat through a Youtube replay of the Small Unmanned Aerial Systems Business Symposium held in the US last year, you'd learn that things like crop surveillance, construction inventory management, fire fighting etc are all being tackled and quite smartly by people who have in-depth knowledge in these systems. Some, like Gene Robertson from Texas, has been cutting his teeth on RC aircraft based search and rescue for over a decade. So the pioneers in this business didn't just pop up yesterday.

Standards and regulations often come up in the US, and other parts of the world either make their own version of it or choose to adopt those standards entirely. An example would be the ASME Pressure Vessel Code which took many accidents to bring about but today just about any vessel manufacturer worth their salt follow the "Code", no matter where they are in the world. Standards assuredly leads to engineering safe systems.

Right now, the mother of drone invention is pregnant and can't deliver because there is no equivalent of a "drone Code" in United States which integrates drones into the airspace, clearly outlines what is accepted and what isn't.

Currently, the total number of entities authorized to fly commercial drones in US airspace is less than 10. That's probably why Matternet, a Singularity University shoot-off going on the promise to build aid carrying transportation networks using drones are flying around in places like Bhutan. They couldn't test an idea in the United States.

It will take some real work for the aviation authorities to come up with regulations that do the regulating without cutting the innovation. Any fool will know that the process can be extremely conservative when it has to do with the Air Traffic Control adopting a new change.

Drones may be out to set an entirely new paradigm in innovation and it's an exciting time to join the band. It is wise for the innovators to be patient and to understand the implications of their solutions. They must consider all stakeholders in the innovation process, not the least of which is a Joe Blow who isn't just a mere externality, but a living breathing person with safety and privacy concerns and he's right there at your system boundary diagram.

No comments: