Fully Autonomous Drones Are on the Horizon

February 3, 2021

Written by Ryan Szporer
Agriculture drones, UAVs

Almost by definition, drones take the human element out of the equation and, according to experts, a day is eventually coming when humans won’t be needed to fly drones at all. The question is when.

Self-Pilot Project

“I don’t think that will happen any time soon, but technically it’s certainly possible to do that,” said Tommaso Melodia, of the department of Electrical & Computer Engineering at Northeastern University.

Melodia also serves as Director of the Institute for the Wireless Internet of Things at Northeastern. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs, colloquially known as drones) are one of the Institute’s many fields of research. Obviously, “unmanned” implies the lack of a pilot. Self-piloting is just one aspect in which drones are gaining greater autonomy, according to Melodia.

“Already, flight control could be completely automated,” he said. “I think a lot of people still feel like that they want an additional degree of human interaction with a machine instead of relying completely on autonomous machines, but it’s going in that direction [of further autonomy], I would say.”

Consider how airlines have already been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, as travel plummets on the lists of would-be travellers’ priorities. Thousands of pilots have already been laid off. Some have actually turned to piloting drones as a stop-gap measure, but, as alluded to earlier, the trend is shifting to pilotless, with market-research-firm Interact Analysis having predicted more than 12,000 autonomous drones will ship in 2022.

Automated vs. Autonomous

To be clear, drones already enjoy a degree of autonomy. Many are already automated, following pre-programmed flight paths, for example. There’s a huge difference between automated and autonomous, though.

For example, a fully autonomous drone would make all its own decisions. Talking to 6GWorld™, Marco Giordani of the University of Padova’s Department of Information Engineering talked about how drones can theoretically map their own flight paths. More to the point, considering their application areas, they will have to do just that.

“Most of the studies are headed in that direction, deciding how swarms of drones can find a target or re-arrange their deployment structure depending on the scenario; whether they need to move or follow the target in a public-safety situation or to support connectivity for soldiers,” he said. “UAVs need to follow the soldiers into the battlefield, so they have to have a sort of automation that makes it possible for this to work properly. We don’t want human intervention or maybe sometimes we don’t even have the possibility to use humans to control them.”

There are different levels of vehicle autonomy (no hierarchy specifically for drones, though). Right now, drones can achieve conditional automation, where a pilot is necessary to monitor how the vehicle is doing on its own.

According to a blog post by David Benowitz, Head of Research at DroneAnalyst, there aren’t any widely available fully autonomous drones as of 2020. Meanwhile, Skydio’s 3D Scan is the first to reach partial autonomy, the next level down, whereby the pilot can take over from an otherwise-autonomous drone if necessary (with American Robotics becoming the first company approved by the Federal Aviation Administration to operate drones without on-site operators).

Situations that might call for manual control include unfavorable weather conditions and the presence of flight restrictions, especially in densely populated areas.Flight restrictions include piloting complications, such as having to avoid people and buildings. Advances in sensor technology are one answer there, with the U.S. Army having recently developed a solution to enable drones to navigate around power lines, provided they carry a current. Giordani, who agreed that autonomous drones are a way off, said battery life is also an overwhelming issue, especially in providing connectivity to rural/ remote areas.

“The technology will improve very soon, but nowadays we have great constraints,” he said. “If we want to provide continuous coverage, we cannot think about UAVs that will stay there for hours or even days, like, for example, [High-Altitude Platforms] do. We need UAVs to be replaced continuously or to design some other types of technologies, like wireless power transfer technologies that can recharge UAVs as they are hovering above the area of interest.”

These Aren’t the Drones You’re Looking for

There’s also the matter of impending regulations. Rules are required for safety purposes, including the need to prevent drones from falling to the ground and causing injury to people and damage to property. For context, the number of UAVs is increasing rapidly, with 1.3 million drones for enterprise applications (not necessarily fully autonomous) predicted to be shipped by 2023.

While national sets of drone rules exist, there is a call to standardise regulations internationally for greater structure within the industry. There are benefits from both operational and manufacturing standpoints.

For example, at their 40th Assembly in October 2019, International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) member nations called on the agency to develop a “global, harmonized framework” for unmanned aerial systems (UAS) that would allow them to align their national regulations, taking into account safety and performance. The ultimate goal is the seamless integration of drones with traditional flight operations.

“Safety concerns such as collisions with manned aircraft, the use of unapproved communications spectrum, and even the expectations of privacy for the citizens… are all of great concern to governments today,” ICAO Secretary General Fang Liu meanwhile said in a recent speech.

“There are further issues we must address such as the functional interoperability we can expect to achieve with traditional air traffic management mechanisms, airspace design, and rules of the air for these new aircraft types.”

Flying the Drone Industry to the Next Level

Speaking with regard to drone manufacturing specifically, Melodia agreed. He said consortia are needed for the technology to progress further. For example, Vodafone recently joined a group led by sees.ai to develop a Beyond Visual Line of Sight system to test remotely operated drones for use in industrial and urban settings.

“We need to find ways to align the interests of the different players and create open architecture. Open doesn’t necessarily mean open source and putting everything in the public domain, but agreeing on the architectures of systems and on how different components are needed to create complex advances in systems where you have technologies interacting with one another,” he said.

“Drones are fantastic machines that have flight control, the mechanical components, the wireless part… all of these things need to be based on standardised architectures, sometimes interfaces with different components. Only then can we achieve the agility and efficiencies that are needed to compete in that space, because we need to have multiple players come together to create these complete systems.”

Feature image courtesy of DJI-Agras (via Pixabay).

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