Transport Evolved

The EHang 184 prototype.

It’s only a matter of time before the air is astir with whizzing vehicles of every size, ferrying everything from pizzas to people. Unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly known as UAVs or drones, are poised to increase in importance in the near future, as companies adopt them for tasks in which they outperform humans. We already know they are more effective budgetarily and more capable in military applications such as reconnaissance, but when will they become involved in day-to-day consumer affairs? What is the commercial endgame for this area of technology? All of the evidence points to the day of the drones being imminent, as AI control systems and hardware components improve at an ever-accelerating rate.

Because of the highly modular nature of drone technology, it is adapted to serve a wide scope of applications. Besides the obvious military applications such as tactical assault and espionage, drones can be used to collect large amounts of scientific data, deliver goods, assist in filmmaking, assist in law enforcement and search and rescue, accelerate aircraft maintenance, aid agriculture with pesticide application and livestock management, and now even carry a person. With the nearly limitless use cases, it is fairly surprising that they are not already ubiquitous. But just as there are many capabilities, there are many limitations that still need to be overcome, mainly in the regulatory space. Yet the rate of drone sales, both commercial and personal, are increasing rapidly. Gartner forecasts that 2017 will see nearly a million more total units sold over last year in the US alone. The same article predicts that primary commercial applications will be centered on internal business functions such as mechanical inspections, not on delivery as previously thought.

This chart from the Gartner article shows the tremendous growth in drone revenues this year.

Just this February, an infra-red equipped drone facilitated the rescue of five skiers in BC, Canada. The search and rescue group KASR received funding from the government for their drone program, demonstrating the rising importance of the technology. In rough terrain such as wintertime British Columbia, drones are becoming recognized as the most practical form of surveillance. The societal impact of being able to survey remote areas with incredible efficiency can’t be undermined.

Meanwhile in China, unmanned avionics company EHang Inc. is in the process of debuting their human-carrying drone taxi. The EHang 184 looks like a vehicle straight out of science fiction—with vertical takeoff, flight trajectory controlled entirely by an AI autopilot network, battery power and the ability to fold into an extremely compact space for storage. However, the drone is only projected to have a 10-mile range, limiting its practicality for daily use or transport infrastructure at this time. However, improvements to battery technology will enable this idea to soar in the near future.

Searching in the Tekcapital app, hundreds of recent university-based drone technologies can be seen. Notable among them is a suite of drone-based safety innovations for cars. These fascinating technologies come out of Kyung Hee University in China, and use a drone in orbit around an ordinary car, supplying vital blind spot and traffic information to the driver. When there is potential danger, the drone automatically deploys, and it disables itself when the coast is clear. Another technology in the suite allows the drones to communicate with other drones and vehicles in the vicinity, collating their data to provide a complete view of all objects in the proximity.

Even though drones are seeing deployment across a number of verticals in state, university, commercial and personal applications, heavy regulation seemingly written for regular aircraft are stymieing progress. In the United States, the FAA regulates all commercial drone activity, hindering commonplace uses such as delivering pizzas, even though the risk of injury is extremely low. On the other hand, this makes sense in volatile urban centers such as New York City, where drones could compromise safety on a large scale. Perhaps the solution is to shift to safety measures of the drones themselves, rather than current motifs of governmental autonomy over our airspace and restricting drone use as much as possible. This belief is shared by a NASA-run initiative, the NextGen Airspace Project, which aims to help drones communicate more fluidly with the Internet and each other for safety.

A real breakthrough has come in Kansas, where startup AirMap has built a fully automated air traffic control app. With 700 aviation businesses and a tremendous amount of drone-supported agriculture in the state, a solution was needed and found. The software provides an airspace map that updates in real time with user-submitted flight information, allowing for better collusion between air traffic controllers and drone operators. Existing air traffic protocol was insufficient for the current volume of drone use, and the state of Kansas took a progressive stance and is solving the problem by partnering with AirMap. If other states follow suit and adopt this technology, our skies will become safer and more drone-friendly overnight. You can download AirMap for iOS and Android.

In conclusion, drones have the incredible potential to do everything from helping in rescue missions to taxiing individuals. Although the large amount of regulatory oversight is likely warranted by the potent and diverse capabilities of the technology, it still needs to be addressed in order for the drone space to come into its own, and we’re starting to see progress with initiatives like AirMap. It’s clear the rate of adoption of drones for practical, daily purposes is accelerating, and the infrastructure to support them is finally substantiating. If rideshare companies were able to overturn the automotive industry, then it can be assumed the same will be said for drones in relation to any number of sectors where they can outperform the existing modus operandi.


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