By Winnie.Agbonlahor

05 Jul 2013

Though their origins lie in military applications, drones are increasingly being used in a civilian context. Winnie Agbonlahor reports on how the public sector might capitalise on the opportunities around unmanned aircraft.


Drones. The word immediately conjures up images of airborne killing machines buzzing unconstrained around the Afghan sky. But the term really refers to any unmanned aircraft (UA) controlled remotely by someone on the ground. Their use outside the military is little known or understood, but the technology has quietly crept into a wide range of areas. UAs can be deployed across sectors from agriculture to conservation, and have the potential to bring benefits to a range of departments and agencies throughout the civil service.

They can, for example, distribute pesticides from the air onto plantations; they can help carry out fire investigations on unsafe buildings; they can search for people at sea or in snow – they can even herd sheep. Currently, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency is testing how a UA can capture aerial imagery of estuaries and provide snapshots of the environment before and after development work; Germany’s national railway company, Deutsche Bahn, wants to use small drones to tackle graffiti artists operating on its property; and a UA has been deployed to to help reduce the number of rhino deaths in South Africa by tracking poachers.

Within government, only the Home Office and Ministry of Defence (MoD) currently make much use of drones. The MoD is operating 335 “remotely-piloted air systems” within Afghan airspace, and aims to expand this fleet until by 2030 a third of the Royal Air Force’s aircraft are unmanned. Last week, the MoD awarded a £30 million contract for the Navy’s first unmanned air system: the ScanEagle can be launched off the back of Navy and Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships day or night, to gather intelligence and survey the area of operations.

Meanwhile, on the domestic front, using UAs in policing can be cost-effective, a spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers tells CSW, but “their use is currently not widespread among police forces in the UK, because there are so many issues that need to be considered”. Nonetheless, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) says it spent around £1.5m on UAs during last week’s G8 summit, and believes that UAs can also help with traffic management, searches for missing or wanted persons, public order situations, and for evidence gathering.

So what needs to be done to facilitate the wider use of UAs outside the military? For a start, their capabilities and reliability need to improve: Dorset Fire and Rescue Services bought a drone to monitor rural areas and counter arson, but later sold it because the technology was not up to scratch.

Civilian UAs are improving quickly, though, and research by the Aerospace, Aviation and Defence Knowledge Transfer Network (AAD KTN) – a ‘knowledge network’ bringing together government, industry and academia – found that ‘autonomous systems’, including drones along with various robotics technologies, could “contribute significantly to the UK economy”. Their study, ‘Autonomous Systems: Opportunities and Challenges for the UK’, suggested the market could eventually be worth £7bn a year.

Turbulence is expected
One fundamental factor blocking drones’ wider use lies within the rules and regulations set by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). At the moment, CAA permits are required for all unmanned aircraft that are used commercially, weigh more than 20kg or travel “out of sight of their operator” – defined as either 500m horizontally or 400ft vertically. The operator also has to apply for a permit if the UA will be used in the vicinity of people or other aircraft. The use of larger UAs involves a stringent application process, and they can only be flown in segregated airspace. Military UAs are subject to the same restrictions, and must also be certified to the same levels of safety as manned military aircraft.

To carry out research designed to support the safe and routine use of UAs, seven UK companies got together six years ago to form the ASTRAEA (Autonomous Systems Technology Related Airborne Evaluation and Assessment) project. Lambert Dopping-Hepenstal, engineering director systems and strategy at BAE Systems and programme director at ASTRAEA, explains the programme considers “the whole system and all the issues associated with the getting the UAs into airspace” and claims it is “unique in the world”.

Using an aircraft with no pilot, he says, has two major advantages: “Because they don’t carry persons, they can be any size, from tiny to huge. Their configuration isn’t being dictated by the human, which means you don’t need all the support systems, such as pressurised cabins.” Being pilotless also affects the amount of time the vehicle can stay in the air: “Humans are frail and they have to come down every now and again. But there is no reason why you can’t fly a UA for extremely long periods, even weeks, so persistence is another big feature. And you can afford to risk them in conditions that you wouldn’t with a person, like extremely poor weather.”

He feels regulation needs to properly differentiate between UAs and manned aircraft: “As the regulations for aircraft assume there is a person on board, we can’t just introduce unmanned aircrafts without doing something about amending the regulations to accommodate them. And you need a fair amount of additional technology to replace the role of the person who is on the aircraft.”

Creating a machine able to detect and avoid other flying objects is key, a spokesman for the CAA told CSW. Drones need “location technology as back-up in case the communication system [with the operator] is down. Until unmanned aircraft have the ability to intuitively avoid other airspace users, in the same way manned aircraft should, then they will not be allowed to operate outside ‘segregated’ airspace”.

As is the case with the development of any new technology, testing is an essential part of the research. But this is tricky in the UK, thanks to our jam-packed skies. “We have the third biggest airport in the world [Heathrow], one of the busiest single runways in the world, and all this over a tiny island,” the CAA spokesman adds. “Our airspace is very congested, which means it’s harder to find the space for the drones to be tested.”

Nevertheless, research is in good shape, Dopping-Hepenstal claims: “Technology is not a hugely difficult problem – it just needs some further maturing to a level at which it could be put into practice.” To properly “exploit” unmanned aircraft and integrate them into our airspace, he explains, his team needs state support: “We need to make sure that the CAA, through the Department for Transport, is fully supportive in making sure that the UK has a strong presence in the development of the necessary rules and regulations nationally and internationally to pave the way for the wider use of unmanned aircraft.”

Funding for the £62m ASTRAEA project so far has come from the Technology Strategy Board – the government’s innovation agency, which falls under the auspices of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), the Welsh Assembly Government and Scottish Enterprise. But the money has just run out. A BIS spokesman says the department is “in discussion with the ASTRAEA consortium about the possibility of a further grant”.

Taking this project further, and getting a good number of industry partners on board, has proved difficult thanks to a “Catch 22”, Dopping-Hepenstal says: it’s hard to attract business partners without offering them a clear return, but it’s hard to promise big returns until the technology is mature. He adds: “We have been in discussion with quite a lot of organisations, there is a general interest; but we are not going to get people saying they’re definitely going to do something” whilst the equipment remains largely untested, he explains, adding that it is “quite difficult to give people confidence that this will be a viable proposition” and prove a business case.

Issues with privacy
Another issue which requires serious consideration is privacy. When UAs are used for surveillance purposes, for instance, they take pictures of people, so their operators have to comply with the eight principles of the Data Protection Act (DPA) – even if the pictures aren’t shared. This also applies when pictures are taken which could lead to the identification of individuals, perhaps via their number plates or addresses.

Jonathan Bamford, head of strategic liaison at the Information Commissioner’s Office – which enforces compliance with the DPA – explains the requirements. As with CCTV, operators have to inform people they are being monitored. Aerial surveillance “is intrusive, so people need to be made aware,” Bamford says. “In the case of drones, you might have to go to greater lengths to do so” than you would with ground cameras.

If, for instance, drones are used by police to watch over a festival to detect drug dealing, he says, it might be advisable to print something on the back of the tickets rather than putting up signs. What’s more, when drone cameras are used to search for individuals, operators have to ensure the cameras are of such high quality that the chances of wrongly identifying people are eliminated completely.

The use of UAs for such purposes also has to be properly justified, Bamford says: “Just because you can do it or it’s proposed, that doesn’t mean it’s justified. Any use of surveillance technology needs to be really well justified.” Caution is required, he adds, because “people are concerned about their privacy. They feel like they are being spied on when they’ve done nothing wrong.” Even when using a UA is justifiable, “you have to make sure it has all the right security practice guides in there.”

The image problem
Besides the technical considerations, it will also be important to raise the profile of UAs, change their image, and counteract the instinctive association with violence.

“Not calling them drones would be a good start,” says Daniel Jones, network and communications manager at AAD KTN. And Ruth Mallors, the network’s director, adds: “People love the Mars Rover [a robot deployed by Nasa to gather information on Mars] – and that’s similar to a drone too. It’s the power of a word. If they were called something quirkier, like the Mars Rover, it would help with their image.”

Mallors says she believes there is “huge potential” for UAs, if all the sectors which could benefit from autonomous systems – such as agriculture, security and utilities – work more closely together to develop technologies: “At the moment, industries tend to work separately; there are regulators for each sector,” she says. “There is little cross-sector communication, resulting in some duplication and a lack of a common approach or vision.”

Meanwhile, Dopping-Hepenstal warns that while the UK is currently a leader in the field, it must not “do its usual thing of being good at something and failing to make money out of it”. He adds that “this is a great opportunity for the UK to be leading in an important area – we are good at airspace. We were pretty good at cars and motorbikes once upon a time, but a lot of these things [have now gone] overseas. Aircraft is one of the few things we have left that we do pretty well.” He warns of other countries which could catch up in the civilian drone market, including Switzerland, Italy, Israel and the USA.

The government appears to be listening: autonomous systems were one of the “eight great technologies” listed in a January speech by universities and science minister David Willetts. These, he said, “will propel the UK to future growth and help it stay ahead in the global race”. Announcing a £460m investment in science, including £35m for centres of excellence in robotics and autonomous systems, Willetts argued that “strong science and flexible markets is a good combination of policies. But it is not enough. It misses out crucial stuff in the middle – real decisions on backing key technologies on their journey from the lab to the marketplace.” Calling this element the “missing third pillar to any successful high tech strategy”, Willetts said: “It is our historic failure to back this which lies behind the familiar problems of the so-called ‘valley of death’ between scientific discoveries and commercial applications.”

Dopping-Hepenstal is hopeful the technology will improve quite quickly, and highlights ASTRAEA’s recent 500-mile test flight of the BAE Systems Jetstream research aircraft. The aircraft was manned, but entirely controlled by a grounded pilot and air traffic controllers – an idea which could pave the way for the future of commercial air travel.

The CAA’s spokesman said: “The work being done here will impact all of us in the next five, ten, 20 years, as unmanned aircraft and associated technology develop and become a part of everyday life. These latest trials help prove the technology we need to routinely operate unmanned aircraft in our airspace, and also help the regulators develop the framework in which the aircraft can operate. Simply put, I believe we are writing a new chapter in aviation history.” One day, insists Mallors, “we will wonder, as with mobile phones, how we ever managed without them.”

Nonetheless, improving technology won’t necessarily change public perceptions. That will come from drones’ applications – and we’re already seeing some surprising ones. The ‘iTray’, a custom-built flying platter using “the most advanced RC Drone quadicopter technology”, is in trials at the Soho branch of Japanese restaurant chain YO! Sushi. It is remote-controlled through an on-board Wi-Fi system and iPad software, and the company wants to roll it out nationwide in 2014.

If diners survive their encounter with this new waiter-free tray, it will be another step on the road towards drones losing their lethal connotations – and breaking free from their military origins to find a new set of more constructive applications.

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