Drones: A benefit to the UK?

FEB. 20, 2017

Drones raise significant safety, security, and privacy concerns but is this criticism simply a misunderstanding or wild misrepresentation of drone reality?

We are constantly being informed about the negative implications of drone use, such as weaponised drones utilised by the military and drones being controlled by criminals to deliver drugs in to prisons. The government recently released an open consultation on the safe use of drones in the UK, asking the public whether we need to change the rules around drone use to mitigate the potential negatives. Whilst there are some genuine areas for concern, they represent the minority and are certainly very different to the work we do at The University of Sheffield. Our work concerns the civilian use of drones either by commercial companies or emergency services. These aircrafts are much smaller than those typically used by the military, with a maximum weight of around 20kg.

Owen 1The biggest use of civilian drones today is for data gathering purposes, usually taking pictures or videos. Examples include surveying farmland to allow farmers to better plan where to use fertiliser, thermal imaging of a burning building allowing the fire service to better plan their approach and structural inspection to avoid the risks associated with scaffolding or rope access. In each of these cases, drones offer a much safer and lower cost solution. As technology continues to develop, so do drone applications, including delivering parcels or medical supplies and precision spraying of pesticides. These types of operations are much more complex than simple data gathering as the drone has to interact with its environment and potentially carry a much heavier payload over greater distances.

Despite their small size, these drones still have the potential to be dangerous if used incorrectly. We routinely see media reports of near misses with commercial airliners, but what isn’t always made clear is the fact that these incidents involve hobbyists, flying for pleasure, largely unfamiliar with existing legislation on flying drones safely. Last year, I was involved in the governments Public Dialogue on drone use in the UK which highlighted the public’s concern about the risks associated with the misuse of drones by hobbyists.

Owen 2Due to these potential risks, I feel strongly that all drones should be regulated in some way and believe that current UK regulations, summarised in the Drone Code, are reasonable for today’s drones. These regulations prohibit flying in built up areas or near airports, so as to minimise the risk that your drone poses to others. These restrictions, however, could prevent a wide array of potentially beneficial drone use from taking place. The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), therefore, take a sensible approach to granting exemptions where appropriate. For example, anyone who wants to fly in a built up area or use drones commercial can apply for permission. To be granted this permission, you need to pass both a theory and practical test to demonstrate that you understand the rules and can fly safely. There are currently over 2,300 individuals/companies who have this permission, including Sheffield Robotics.

In addition to the standard permissions, the CAA welcome applications for exemptions from other regulations, such as the requirement to keep your drone in sight. This process of exemptions allows Universities and private companies to develop new drone technology and to push their capabilities beyond the current regulations. A great example of this is the test flight of an autonomous parcel delivery drone conducted by Amazon in December last year. As these technologies continue to develop, the regulations will also need to evolve. I am involved with the governments recently launched Drone Industry Action Group, providing insight from academia on how the technology is likely to develop and what methods we can use to ensure its safety.

Owen 3In the Department of Automatic Control and Systems Engineering (ACSE), we are working on the next generation of intelligent drones, with a particular focus on how to verify that they will always fly safely. These drones are capable of flying without constant oversight from a human pilot, but this poses a challenge with regards to the regulations. Currently, a pilot has to hold a qualification to fly drones commercially, and this qualification tests their ability to fly and deal with emergencies. If we want to deploy a highly autonomous drone, we need to be able to prove that it will be at least as good as a human pilot in the same situations.

By developing highly autonomous drones which are verifiably safe, we seek to enable regular commercial use of drones beyond the sight of a pilot. This will open up a number of new opportunities for the use of drones such as inspection of power lines and pipelines over long distances, delivery of parcels in cities and mapping of large areas.

In my opinion drones are an exceptionally useful tool that can have a positive impact on our society. Drones can save lives in natural and manmade disasters - locating stranded and injured victims; they can support law enforcement - searching for lost children and providing tactical surveillance; contribute to safe infrastructure maintenance and management - inspecting the underside of bridges and the tops of skyscrapers and can help streamline agriculture management.

If you have any opinions about existing or future uses of commercial drones within the UK, make sure you take part in the governments Open Consultation before March 15th 2017.

Dr Owen McAree, Research Fellow in Robot Safety in the Department of Automatic Control and Systems Engineering and Researcher at Sheffield Robotics.