Flight Risk: A new world 50 metres up

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27 Sep 2019
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EY Oceania

Multidisciplinary professional services organization

27 Sep 2019

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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?  

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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.

Estimated market value of drone powered solutions in agriculture

$US32.4 billion

FAO, E-agriculture in action: Drones for agriculture, 2018

The problem is, many of the commercial organisations driving this change are new entrants to the air services space. Auto companies such as Volvo and Audi, fast food brands such as Dominos, delivery services such as Australia Post, UPS and Amazon, connectivity providers including Telstra, Vodafone and BT, as well as global behemoths Google and Uber, are a handful of big names now operating in an arena traditionally dominated by airlines and aircraft providers.

It means civil aviation bodies are facing the conundrum of how to integrate, educate and regulate new airspace users who are not necessarily rooted in a tradition of airspace safety.

Add to that the millions of recreational users expected to be flying their own drones in the next few years, and the fact that in Australia at least, the law – and insurers – are as yet unclear on whether drones should be considered motor vehicles or aircraft, and you start to understand why building a new system to cope with all the new craft in the skies is not as simple as earmarking designated no-fly zones and telling users to stay 30 metres away from buildings and people.

Woman speaking

Dr Cath Ball speaking at World of Drones Congress, which she founded in 2017. Photo Supplied

How the drone industry develops will also have huge implications for infrastructure spending and planning, as people come to grips with the idea that in high-density urban areas, RPAS will fundamentally change land transport and city design, ultimately taking cars off the road as drones take up the slack for last mile delivery, emergency response and, down the track, passenger transport.

In June this year, Australian Business Traveller reported that Uber Air was forecasting commercial aerial ridesharing in Melbourne by 2023, with trials scheduled to begin in 2020.

Uber, which is the only company in the world to have announced it will test drones for ridesharing, has said it chose Melbourne as one of only three global test sites (along with Dallas and Los Angeles) because current regulation in Australia is conducive to the blossoming industry.

It estimates that trips between Melbourne airport and the CBD, which can take up to an hour in road traffic, could be done via aerial rideshare in as little as ten minutes.

“We’re seeing international companies of all sizes come to Australia to test their technology because, unlike places such as the UK which gives landholders private rights to airspace up to 1000 feet above their property, we have a much clearer reglatory framework in Australia. “Government and businesses across Austalia have shown a strong appetite to support local and international investment in new innovations and technoligies in airspace, including for drones,” says EY Oceania Future Cities Leader Adam Fennessy.

He first saw drones used for long range forest management and bushfire control in his time working with the Victorian Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, but says the technology will fundamentally change big cities within the next two decades. 

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An artist's impression of an airborne Bell Nexus Air Taxi unveiled in the US in January 2019. Image: Bell

Dubai, which has stated it wants to be the first city with remote piloted aerial taxis, is already doing rooftop to rooftop transfer of government mail and urgent mail because it’s so congested on its roads, Ball says.

“So all these new buildings being put up [in the capital cities], how many of them have helipads on the roof?” she says. “They’re all looking at the idea of solar panels and green roofs, but helipads are going to start competing. And then, how many of those buildings have goods lifts that go up to the roof?”

EY Global Government Transport Leader Tony Canavan has over three decades’ experience in transport planning and major infrastructure project delivery. He says that transport agencies have traditionally developed regulatory regimes by having different elements designed by different people, with different rules and requirements – everything from infrastructure standards, road laws and vehicle certification to heavy vehicle regulation, public transport rules and policing.

“There is an opportunity with tremendous productivity benefits if we get it right,” he says about the chance to design a cohesive, internally consistent RPAS regulatory regime from scratch, that considers aerial and surface transport together, and marry it to public as well as private infrastructure planning.

“The transport network now feasibly reaches 50 metres into the sky to perform land transport tasks. This will end up displacing or replacing much of the activity on the ground. Apart from anything else, what are the implications for land transport if everything moves up a level?” 

Sunburds drone flight training at Brightlands Station in Queensland, Australia. Photo Supplied

1700 kilometres north-west of Brisbane in Cloncurry, peak hour traffic congestion isn’t much of a concern. The town is surrounded by vast tracts of scrub and dirt, on which some of Australia’s largest pastoralist companies run tens of thousands of head of cattle.

Out here, the challenge facing airspace regulators is very different. Where urban areas are likely to see a predominance of short-range rotor based RPAS, the scale and nature of business in remote Australia means fixed-wing, long-range drones are a solution for everything from surveying mines and checking water bores on stations to emergency responses, communications and deliveries.

“Deliveries in the outback would be something I’d keep an eye on,” says Frenchman Aumary Wiest. “This year a bloke on a property out near Cloncurry called me and asked if I could deliver some smokes from the city to the cattle station, because they’d been cut off from the world by the floods.” He laughs at the recollection but doesn’t dismiss what it signals.

“There is a tremendous market in Australia because it’s only 25 million people over a huge amount of land, so because of that, drones will solve a lot of issues.”

Wiest used to work for Airbus on “airworthiness, and civil aviation authority work”, but left to help co-found Sunbirds, a solar powered long-range drone company. Where a rotor-based system can generally fly for less than half an hour due to battery and weight constraints, these RPAS can run for up to seven and a half hours. It’s technology that solves one of the biggest constraints to date for commercial application of RPAS – limited flight time.

For Australia, the main challenge will be to adopt two systems, not only because there is this dual entity in charge of air traffic, but also because there are two realities in Australia, the outback and the rest of the country.
Aumary Wiest
Co-Founder, Sunbirds

Australia represents 11 per cent of the world's airspace, with Airservices Australia responsible for managing Australian airspace, allocating flight paths to air users and running air traffic control. Sister organisation CASA (the Civil Aviation Safety Authority) is the aviation safety regulator, which licenses pilots, registers aircraft and oversees safety. 

In cities, the technology to power new types of Unmanned Traffic Management systems (UTMs) which will help RPAS talk to air traffic control centres and ideally identify individual drones among other blips on the radar, is being developed mostly by independent commercial operators, to help their own RPAS fleets travel safely in crowded low altitude airspace. 

The ‘sense and avoid’ systems, which are also necessary to divert and direct RPAS around potential weather events or emergency sites, are an industry on its own estimated to be worth about $US3.6 billion by 2022.

But out near Cloncurry, and across the majority of the Australian landmass, locals don't see UTMs as necessary. On a single private property that can cover thousands of square hectares, planes and helicopters are used for everything from delivering supplies to mustering cattle - a job that requires equal part skill and risk appetite. Pilots know their land, and know the aircraft that fly their land.

Drones are being tested as a replacement for manned aircraft for inspection missions on large outback properties. Photo Supplied

“For Australia, the main challenge will be to adopt two systems, not only because there is this dual entity in charge of air traffic, but also because there are two realities in Australia, the outback and the rest of the country” Wiest says.

It’s where a single set of regulation and licensing requirements can create disgruntled users. Anyone wanting to fly a drone beyond visual line of sight (BVLS) is required to hold an instrument rated pilots licence, essentially to be a qualified aeroplane pilot, Wiest says.

He believes it’s the biggest hindrance to seeing his industry develop. “I have graziers asking me everyday, I want [a drone], what do I have to do? I tell them, you can’t really fly them legally beyond visual line of sight.”

The problem is, he says, the licensing requirement has pretty much nothing to do with BVLS flights, so the level of safety associated with having that qualification doesn’t match what is required in real life.

It’s a common theme from commercial operators, both in urban areas and in the outback, who are frustrated that current laws around drones feel like a Band-Aid solution for a technology that is in their view, running ahead faster than governments can keep up. The concern is that if it isn’t addressed, Australia will lose its competitive advantage as countries such as the US race to find clearer solutions to registration and regulation.

I have graziers asking me everyday, I want [a drone], what do I have to do? I tell them, you can’t really fly them legally beyond visual line of sight
Aumary Wiest
Co-founder, Sunbirds

Headquartered in Toulouse, the aeronautics capital of Europe, Sunbirds choose Australia to test their drone technology, and explore how they can and should interact with existing aircraft, because it was the most attractive location of any country in the world.

Wiest ranked possible locations against 15 criteria he had defined and only the US and Africa came close to Australia: he says the US is too expensive to get into the market and Africa comes with much higher sovereign risk than Queensland.

“Australia is ticking a lot of boxes, large remote areas, very progressive regulation, one of the best systems in the world, and it's one Federal regulation for the entire country which is quite amazing.”

But he sees effective and safe use of airspace in the non-urbanised parts of Australia as being an operational, rather than a regulatory or UTM concern.

“We’ve done trials on an MDH owned property near Cloncurry where they fly at least two choppers every day,” says Wiest. “When we brought the drones into the same area… We realised that having drones ‘talk’ to choppers is not really practical.

“But having the chief pilot or the chopper pilot [for that property] be the pilot in charge of the drones, that makes it safe because they know where all the other aircraft are on that day,” Wiest says.

Crucially, during testing they saw an unexpected phenomenon develop. “As soon as we started flying drones in airspace where choppers were around, and we flew repeatedly for about six weeks, the chopper pilots and fixed wing pilots started getting used to it and it actually became the drones’ flight area.

“The other aircraft would fly around that area. So it becomes ‘oh I should not hit a drone’, as opposed to ‘it better not be in my way when I come through’.”

The M600 Pro used by Bennett + Bennett flies over Miami in Queensland. Photo Supplied

Back in Brisbane, the urban cowboys are what’s worrying Cath Ball, and others including Craig Wood. The specialist surveying company, Bennett + Bennett, where Wood is a director, purchased their commercial scale drone last year to expand their aerial surveying offering for clients.

“It’s like a flying boat,” says Ben Dawes who works with Wood. “It’s this big,” he says, arms outstretched across the café table. “It’s intimidating, really intimidating. You stand next to this thing taking off and the noise is like a mini-helicopter. You instantly respect it.”

He’s talking about the DJI M600 Pro, which weighs in around 16 kilograms with a full payload (scanner equipment) attached.

Wood concedes they were somewhat naive when they bought it, underestimating the registration and licensing process they would have to go through. They now have a chief remote pilot, surveyors with their remote pilot licence and hold a remotely piloted aircraft operators certificate. “We have to keep flight logs,” says Wood. “We’re effectively treated like an aviation company now.”

The issue for them is that it feels like the system allows recreational users to put drones into the sky with far fewer regulations, or that there are other drone operators who are renting out the use of their equipment and allowing people to fly under their licences.

“We were doing a project in the city before we brought our drone, and this guy offered us his gear and a couple of hours training and away you go. I was more nervous than him. We didn’t do it in the end but all those questions get raised,” Wood says. “If I crash, whose insurance covers me? Am I covered? Am I breaking the law?”

In the same way that taxi licences were once considered a financial asset because of their limited numbers and stringent registration requirements, the influx of drones in our skies from unlicensed and poorly regulated or policed users threatens to undermine the time, effort and financial costs borne by commercial operators who choose to fulfil the licensing requirements. The risk is that it disincentivises those who would otherwise have undertaken the proper processes.

Education beats regulation every time... If you get kids in schools knowing what the laws are about, they tell their parents how to fly. They don’t fly stupidly.
Dr Cath Ball
Founder, World of Drones Congress

Stories of flagrant misuse of drones - such as the Victorian men who dangled a chair from a drone and flew their mate over a dam to go fishing - as well as more prosaic breaches are documented with alarming regularity on not just social media sites but company websites. Real estate agents are the oft-cited offenders because of their penchant to fly within the 30 metre radius of buildings and people.

"People incriminate themselves on Youtube," Ball says. The challenge for regulators is working out how to police the problem. Dawes agrees: "I've seen people work on the basis that you do whatever you want until someting happens."

It raises questions about the sheer volume of drones flying today, and about how regulators intend to keep track of them. Registation is central to the system not just for policing, or as a revenue generator, but because it enables regulators to plan and forecast airspace traffic conditions and trends, and to co-ordinate potential flight paths accordingly.

In the US, it is now a felony offence to fly an unregistered drone. "You can go to prison for flying an unregistered drone,” Ball says. "I think they actually allow people to register for free, for the first six months, and they still only had something like ten per cent register.” Part of the challenge is the ease with which people can buy drones over the counter, with less I.D. than is required for a SIM card. Or, 3D-print them.

It’s why Ball says the key to it all is education. If people are educated about safe piloting and equitable access to airspace the likelihood of users breaking the law out of ignorance is reduced. She believes drone piloting needs to be taught as early as primary school. “If you get kids in schools knowing what the laws are about, they tell their parents how to fly. They don’t fly stupidly.”

Reducing ignorance of the law in turn reduces the burden on whichever body will ultimately be required to police drones into the coming years, something that is as yet undecided, as is whether there should be designated flight corridors, particularly for emergency response vehicles.

In the US, Wiest says, the FAA had the idea of opening up corridors to commercial drone flights over cities. “Basically buying or leasing a big chunk of the airspace, and then leasing that back to users of the airspace like drone companies, and that generates a lot of money so they can actually put in place a UTM,” he says

Penalty for unsafe operation of a drone in the US

3 years jail

US Federal Aviation Administration

Understanding the possibilities is why pilot programs are critical in these early days of the industry’s development, particularly in an era where large global players will be looking to maximise revenue and reduce costs by plotting shortest available routes between pick up and drop off points.

Managing and coordinating what could become infinite possible flight paths will be critical, including, for Airservices, its remit to prioritise emergency vehicle access at all times. Whether that will be through corridors or by using UTMs to direct and change air traffic flow, has not been decided.

One benefit of piloting tests using emergency responders, or medical aid drones is that it establishes clear public benefits for the technology. It’s what Fennessy refers to as “drones for good”, to ensure people understand they have use cases beyond delivering fast food, or coffees.

“It’s like when you have a helicopter come over your house and the noise might be loud and really annoying. But you look up and see it’s an emergency response helicopter and you immediately feel ok about it impinging on your day.”

He says the challenge regulators face is not to be taken lightly. They are being asked to design a new management system for technology that is undergoing rapid change and exponential capability increases, to cater for a near future that still feels more like science-fiction, with limited funding and no guarantee that the world will turn out the way they expected, or planned for.

All that, and they need to find a solution that encourages, rather than hampers development and growth of the industry, and to do it fast enough so that Australia doesn’t lose its competitive advantage. Canavan says no-one expects the transition to be easy. “Humans are hardwired to cope with linear change and we’ve designed most of our processes and regulations, and the way we do business in accordance with linear change. But disruptive forces are all happening exponentially.

“So the whole way you conceive of, and undertake regulatory reform has to change to adaptive regulation. The way we do it becomes part of the process of innovation and not always the blocker to it.”

He sees the first step as making regimes outcome based, and designed to create parameters within which innovation can occur, rather than being reactive to every change. And there has to be room for the innovators inside the regulatory tent, “so that when you’re designing reform, you’re designing the disruptive change.” 

The uptake of drone transport is expected to change the way we live, and potentially the shape of our cities. Illustration Tanya Cooper

For now, Australia remains out in front as a global destination of choice for drone providers, software companies keen on testing UTMs, and operators eager to put new machines through their paces.

The warning from those in the industry, however, is that our lead cannot be taken for granted. For regulators and for the governments that put drone infrastructure spending and planning into the basket of ‘things to deal with later’, there should be a niggling sense of anxiety around just how quickly that future they’re not really thinking about yet, will arrive.

“Jim’s Mowing now has Jim’s Drones,” Wood says, oscillating somewhere between humour and disbelief at the fact the iconic franchise group that began in 1982 as a gardening business now offers photography and basic surveying using drone technology. “That gives you the scale of where the industry is heading.” 

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EY Oceania

Multidisciplinary professional services organization