30 APRIL 2018
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Drones: Current Disruption and Future Disruptor
Aleks Kowalski is a co-founder of Consortiq, a specialist drone consultancy with an emphasis on safety within this fast-growing division of the aviation business. In addition, he is an airline captain on the A320 and sits on the government's BEIS Drone Industry Action Group. Here, he discusses where we are with drones as of now and the current risks to aviation, but also the pace of drone development and how it could affect business travel in future. See Drone near collision in this issue.
The UK Civil Aviation Authority’s (CAA) Drone Code provides recreational users with a simple overview of existing drone regulation. One of the rules is that users must always operate their drones within visual line of sight (VLOS). Another is that users must keep their drone away from aircraft, airports, and airfields. However, as with the Gatwick diversions at the end of 2017 which cost more than £1m, rogue activity represents a risk which is difficult to analyse or quantify from existing safety data.
The CAA recently published its own assessment (CAP1627) of the drone safety risk. From that report, the available information indicated that due to drones' more rigid structure, a collision is likely to result in a higher peak impact than a collision with a bird. The densest components of the drone – the motors, battery pack, and payload – would contribute most significantly to the severity outcome.
The number of Mandatory Occurrence Reporting (MOR) and Airprox reports related to drones has increased in recent years. In 2016, 121 events occurred in the London Terminal Manoeuvring area (LTMA) out of a total of 248. But – aside from a BALPA/DfT/MAA collision test study – no empirical evidence has been conducted, only modelling exercises and, crucially, no empirical test of a drone impact through an engine.
For those of us brought up in aviation, airmanship and professionalism are second nature, but the ease of operation of drones, its automation and low barriers to entry are creating a new breed of user. In the 1,000-plus pilots we have trained, this has become more apparent in recent times. Proposed EU regulation from 2019 lowers this threshold even further to a mere online exam for many commercial users.
Pace of Development
Future DfT legislation is expected to propose the use of a safety app for all users. This all feeds into a recognition by authorities that they must enable developments themselves to enable safe operators and by extension companies to feed into a vision of BVLOS (Beyond Visual Line of Sight) and autonomy.
At the start of February, two activities were announced which illustrated this: In the US, the FAA launched its UAS Traffic Management Pilot Program with a go-live date of March 2019, while in the EU, EASA hosted its UAS webinar, addressing airspace assessment, a common altitude-reference system and flight rules as part of a wider approach by SESAR JU, which has announced a €9.5m Call for U-Space Demonstrators.
Coincidentally in February, Airbus conducted its maiden flight of Project Vahana, its eVTOL (Vertical Take-off and Landing) aircraft, and it is this area that is looking to disrupt business travel in future. Today, 54% of the world's population lives in urban areas, a proportion according to the UN expected to increase to 66% by 2050.
Travel in the Future
The global transport market is now conservatively valued by Deloitte at $15.5tn. At the most recent count, there are more than 50 companies working at producing eVTOL aircraft, from Uber Elevate to large cargo drones such as Natilus, which closed a second round of funding in November 2017 and is aiming to reduce the cost of global air freight by 50% with a 60m, 90-tonne cargo payload drone prototype by 2020.
The arrival of these disruptors could dramatically reshape a mobility landscape that is already in transition. The question is whether the existing industry will adopt a wait-and-see attitude or engage at the early stage?
Logistics players such as FedEx and DHL are still to reveal bigger plans but are exploring the drone environment and learning on a smaller scale. Compare this with traditional airlines, which are working on the customer experience but see little threat to their existing business models anytime soon.
Meanwhile, the large tech companies are entering aviation as well – Amazon at the small level, but the likes of Google funding Kitty Hawk demonstrates their seriousness into what will become a crowded market much faster than the industry is prepared for.
Travel in One Step
My personal view is we are heading for something which has an element of function alongside the experience. Airbus with Project Transpose is already looking at rethinking modular cabin design and architecture for large commercial aircraft. What if we were to bring this concept into drones?
This area of aviation is exciting, but a challenge to incumbents. If vertical ports and flying cars do become more widespread than common consensus can imagine at this stage, doesn’t it render the whole argument of a new runway at Heathrow to that of a footnote, remote towers and even the notion of active airspace management itself obsolete?
To finish with a quote from someone much wiser than me: “Mark my words. A combination of airplane and motorcar is coming. You may smile. But it will come.” That was Henry Ford, in 1940.
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