UK: Drone delivery and integration may still be a while off

A look at the use, regulation and integration of commercial drones in the UK and Europe.

If you believe the hype, the skies will one day be filled with swarms of drones flying hither and thither, carrying parcels, taking photos, watering crops, and a million other uses.

However, the reality isn’t quite so futuristic. Aside from the fact the technology isn’t quite there yet, current drone rules, especially around commercial uses, just don’t provision for a sky full of robotic machines performing tasks.

“The unmanned aircraft sector has great potential and we certainly want to ensure the industry can develop in a safe and structured way,” a CAA spokesperson told IDG Connect last year. “We have received no indication that the current rules are impeding the growth of a commercial drone sector.”

To operate commercial drones in the UK requires the permission of the CAA - over 1500 companies have been granted permission to date - which requires the operator to demonstrate a general understanding of aviation theory, pass a practical flight assessment, develop basic procedures for conducting the type of flight they want to do, and set these out in an operations manual. When in flight, the drones must stay below 400ft and within Line of Sight of the pilot, must not fly over congested areas, or near buildings or people other than the person in charge of the aircraft.

The EU proposes new rules

Although the UK may not be interested after June 23rd, the European Aviation Safety Agency [EASA] has published guidance on future drone regulation in an effort to harmonise and standardise what is currently a fractured set of rules.

The proposed measures break drones down into three categories based on weight and capability; essentially very small and flown close to the user (but otherwise unregulated), medium with some rules about risk assessment and certification, and heavy and strictly regulated [but largely only affecting drones of military size].

Currently responsibility over drone regulation within Europe is delegated to each of the member states. “Each member state established their own framework, which means a counterproductive way to a harmonised European regulation,” explains Hendrik Bödecker, CFO & Co-Founder of the Droneii analyst firm.

“The EASA guidance looks fine to me, as long as we can re-assure the public of the secure and safe nature of flight I’m all for it,” says Justin Pringle, CTO of drone services company Drone Ops. He adds that EASA have a better understanding than the likes of the CAA or FAA  around certifications to approve flight ability, which rely too heavily on the commercial sector for referral of ability.

“There isn’t anything about them that doesn't seem sensible to us,” says Jay Bregman, CEO & Co-founder of drone-safety startup Verifly. “[But] I think the biggest concern of all of these regulatory agencies has been how to regulate the consumer market rather than giving more capabilities to other people [i.e commercial entities], because  there are a fair number of high profile risks that have been created by all this technology that have not really been addressed yet.”

“If you look at the United States, for example, you have several million consumer users but there's only been three thousand [currently just over 4,000 - editor] actual approved commercial operators. So if you look at that, the political flak the FAA is getting is really all about the consumer market. The commercial market - relative to regulatory priorities, is not a huge concern.”

Still a way off delivery and integration

March saw two major steps in drone delivery; Maersk successfully tested using ship-to-ship drone delivery as part of its supply chain, while Flirtey saw the first fully autonomous, FAA-approved drone delivery after dropping a package of water, food and first aid, albeit to an uninhabited FAA drone testing area in Nevada.

However, though a city skyline buzzing with drones flying in all directions and carrying parcels to people is a nice image drone advocates like to paint, we might still be a way off from such a future. Currently regulations around flying Beyond Line of Sight [BLoS] don’t exist, the infrastructure for flying drones in congested airspace isn’t in place, and automated avoidance technology isn’t standard in models yet.

Many are pushing for change – the FAA recently set out potential recommendations about flying drones over crowds – but there are still many saying the industry and current available options aren’t ready to make such big steps forwards.

“BLOS is another set of dramas that the technology just isn’t ready for,” claims DroneOps’ Pringle. “Anticipation of collision avoidance and associated tech is batting well above its weight in terms of sensationalism.”

Verifly’s Bregman agrees; “It’s going to happen, but I don't think it’s a huge urgent priority because there aren’t many use cases right now for the commercial operators that cannot be accomplished in line of sight.”

Last year Amazon outlined how it would like to see the future of drone use by proposing dedicated “drone airspace”, where Unmanned Aerial Vehicles [UAVs] occupy the space below 400ft and have ‘no fly zones’ above that height as well as restrictions around areas such as airports.

“Our primary concern relates to safety. A dedicated section of airspace reserved exclusively for drones is unlikely to be approved,” warned the CAA spokesperson. “Helicopters used by the emergency services will always need to use this lower airspace, [but] we follow closely technological developments and keep our regulations under review accordingly.” 

DARPA and various other research bodies are working on autonomous detect and avoid technology, but questions still remain over who will oversee their control.

“When/if the technology is developed for commercial use, it will need to be approved by the FAA in the US and the European Aviation Safety Agency in Europe,” the CAA spokesperson replied when asked about oversight of such technology. “Once that approval is granted, national regulators (such as the CAA) will need to develop policies to integrate commercial drone operations into ‘non-segregated’ airspace.”

At the same time, NASA is leading the way on efforts to create an Unmanned Air Traffic Control system for drones – also known as a UTM – that would allow pilots of all kinds to check flight plans, weather conditions and other restrictions in real-time, bringing order to what could be chaos.

“To be perfectly honest I think the problem that NASA’s UTM project and projects like it are solving, is not a problem that actually exists in the world right now and won’t exist for many years,” says Verifly’s Bregman. “The idea that the skies will become so congested with drones that drones will basically be somehow guided to avoid other drones and have safe passage for skies just isn't an issue.“

Drones vs. driverless cars

Another interesting technology that’s attracting a lot of attention right now is driverless cars. But while autonomous vehicles are receiving large amounts of government funding – the US is aiming to spend billions of dollars over the next decade, while the UK is investing millions of pounds and running trials in Milton Keynes and Greenwich – drones are yet receiving such a warm welcome, with one research project actually being denied government funding last year. 

DroneOp’s Pringle suggests this preference is simply down to commercialisation. “There is no money really showing in the enterprise for drones, however the car companies are happy to splash the R&D cash,” he says. “So Milton Keynes et al will be getting monetary gains from someone in the commercial sector.”

Verifly’s Bregman, who is also the founder and former CEO of UK taxi app Hailo, is less cynical in his view. “One reason is that driverless cars are very in vogue technology, another is driverless cars are much longer term investment and they potentially have longer term societal benefit. Other than that I can’t explain it.”

Threats and headlines, eagles and nets

Despite a new study suggesting drones present a minimal threat to aircraft, near misses are regular headlines in the news and likely to increase with an ever-increasing number of hobbyists taking to the skies and not respecting to the rules of the sky. Are these bad headlines holding the industry back?

“Nope,” claims DroneOps’ Pringle. “No one has yet died, nor has there been a large insurance liability claim so we are still good.”

“As a major cynic one thing that does worry me is the amount of “near collisions” that are happening without any visual evidence… are you telling me that aircraft don’t have dash-cams?”

Whatever the truth, there has been a marked increase in the number of anti-drone devices of late. From large scale detect and jam-type installations and jamming rifles to drones equipped with nets and even eagles, there’s plenty of interest in deterrence, but are these methods taking things too far?

Pringle says he’s worked with Counter Drone Measures and suggest they are a big money spinner for the companies involved. “I have had a recent heated debate about eagles, as soon as a bird gets hurt or blood is spilt that’s the end of that.”

“I believe that all pilots should only hold a provisional licence and be able to fly no more than 200ft left, right and upwards. Full status at gaining a PFAW would allow for higher and further work, but ultimately allow for a level of safety to be managed by the public by not allowing as much wiggle room for failure, or air collision, or building/person liability.”

While Droneii’s Bödecker is in favour of programmed geo-fencing and jamming tools such as DeDrone and DroneDefender, he suggests that despite the high level of attention given to the hobbyist market, policy makers shouldn’t factor in their recklessness when it comes to rules for commercial entities, otherwise it will lead to overregulation.

“Authorised commercial operators are not going to risk their business by crossing a control zone or violating any other rules. If people plan to do forbidden actions, they will find a way around these restrictions.”

Verfily’s Bregman admits that the number of negative headlines about near misses could give people outside the industry the impression that the skies are already full to the brim with these machines, which inevitably fuels people to want to keep them away. “I’m not sure that there is a huge kind of market for any of these right now but I do think there will be a place for these sort of technologies,” he says. “The fact that there are so many anti-drone technologies is really just a sort of antidote to the fact that drones are so powerful and have different capabilities that sometimes can be used for less than good purposes.”

“That said, I think that there are, particularly in the tech press, a lot more stories about the positive aspects of drones, and I think with new people coming into the market like GoPro that are really mainstream, mass market brands, there will probably be even more stories about that.”


Additional reading:

Commercial drone flights: Poor rules, NASA, & the future

The Drone Age is here

What does the future of driverless cars look like?