Few people will have escaped the story about Amazon looking into the idea of making customer deliveries via unmanned aerial drones, with the promise of parcels landing gently at your front door within 30 minutes of being ordered.
It sounds fantastical, but was it any more than just a PR puff piece timed expertly to appear on the biggest online shopping day of the year, or can we really expect our orders to be delivered by drone within the foreseeable future?
The short answer is that nothing Amazon has proposed is impossible.
However, while the concept is undeniably exciting, there are a number of challenges that would need to be overcome to make it a reality. The fact is that the current regulatory environment simply isn’t set up to accommodate this kind of technology.
As things stand, light-weight UAVs – unmanned aerial vehicles – have to be operated within line of sight of the operator, which obviously limits their operational distance. Like larger UAV trials that NATS has been involved in, remote command and control of light weight drones is certainly achievable, but the more serious challenge is the need to achieve ‘equivalence’.
This means any UAV operator needs to be able to demonstrate that their drone is capable of matching the capabilities of a manned operation. An onboard pilot is able to ‘see and avoid’ any other traffic in the vicinity. Any delivery drone would therefore need to be capable of doing the same.
Amazon’s concept UAVs seem to be small, low level – below 2000ft – and autonomous once launched. The amount of controlled airspace that exists below 2000ft is very small. This would limit the potential impact on air traffic control, but operating outside controlled airspace makes the need to ‘see and avoid’ even more important.
Probably the greatest technical challenge is the need to maintain the navigational data link between the ground and the drone. What happens if that link is broken for some reason? A number of incidents globally in recent times have shown that the loss of communication can result in a crash.
Agreeing a safe procedure for the event of a ‘losslink’ is therefore vital and something that I know is currently being developed.
The challenges are therefore great, but not impossible to overcome. In fact NATS is just embarking on a trial that is seeking to address some of these very questions around regulation and safety. From summer 2014 we will be testing the use of unmanned aircraft in civilian airspace for the very first time. It is an exciting prospect and one that could help pave the way to drones playing a much greater role in our everyday lives.
But until then, we’ll all just have to wait for the postman.
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