As low altitude airspace fills with new types of flying machines, and technology provides more use cases for drones, the question is, can everybody fly together safely? And will the pros of building a transport industry in the sky outweigh the cons?
elicopters are designed to take a frozen turkey through the rotor systems,” Dr Cath Ball says, sitting at her local café in a riverside suburb of Brisbane. “The reason why it’s a frozen turkey I believe, is because that’s the most equivalent in terms of biophysics of a human cadaver crashing through the rotary system.”
Ball, who is a globally recognised expert and educator on the power and potential of drones, is using the example as an antidote to some of the anxiety creeping in about the proliferation of these machines, and the threat they pose due to mid-air collisions.
“Look at a lithium battery, it’s this size,” she says holding out the palm of her hand. The battery is typically one of the harder, heavier components of a drone. “Do you think a battery this size can do the same amount of damage as a human being falling through the rotary system? No.”
Ball first started working with drones, or Remote Piloted Aircraft Systems (she rejects the term ‘unmanned aerial vehicle’ on the basis that women also fly RPAS) in 2012, when she and a research team flew human-sized, long range drones off the coast of Western Australia tracking turtle habitats.
“Of course, with any new technology naturally to be conservative in your risk management approach would seem logical, with so many unknowns, such a lack of data,” she says. “But panic is not the answer to that.”
Recreational and commercial drone technology has developed so rapidly in the years since Ball tracked those turtles, that governments and regulators around the world can no longer simply tinker on the margins of this new age of air transportation.
The proliferation of new commercial use cases for drones, and the ability of ordinary people to launch RPAS into low altitude airspace mean governments are now being compelled to answer real and pressing questions about how to keep everyone safe and operating within a sensible regulatory framework that doesn’t stymie development of the industry.
The US Federal Aviation Administration estimates that by 2022, there will be 2.4 million drones in its skies. Within six years, it is suggested the annual revenue of the drone industry could reach $US82.1 billion. And while commercial drones make up only 6 per cent of total units sold, their manufacture, sale and deployment accounts for 60 per cent of industry revenue. Drones, it seems, will be big business.