September 19, 2018
By Brian Dietrich, Intel
For most of us, our first exposure to drone technology, also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) was watching nightly news clips or perhaps YouTube videos of unmanned aircraft flying military missions over remote areas of Afghanistan or Yemen to provide surveillance, tactical information, or in some cases, offensive strike capability. Controlled remotely by trained military professionals, these drones were piloted with clear, defined procedures to operate during war time. Because offensive drone strikes can be strategic and deadly in their mission, these types of operations left a lingering public perception that drones are military weapons and potential harbingers of death for unsuspecting victims in faraway places. It is a common misconception that drones are inherently evil.
The Lighter Side of UAVs
More recently, drones have become a common sight in our own communities thanks to an ever- expanding hobbyist and enthusiast marketplace. We see drones overhead in our parks, over lakes, at outdoor concerts and even following someone down a ski slope. These drones are intended for entertainment and allow hobbyists to explore remote places and structures that might otherwise prove inaccessible. At a recent family reunion at the beach, we took a stunning photograph of the ocean and sunset in the background using a drone flying 30 feet above the ground. This keepsake image would not have been possible from a ground-based camera.
These small UAVs (categorized as up to 55 LBS in weight) are regulated by the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) under the recently established FAA Part 107 rules which govern a broad set of use cases for commercial and government use (outside military applications). There are many regulations regarding where, when and how you can legally fly these types of small UAVs devices. For instance, Part 107 rules require drones fly no higher than 400 feet and no faster than 100mph, and the pilot must maintain an unassisted line of sight to the device. Additionally, Part 107 requires the operator to hold a remote pilot certificate. The FAA will grant waivers in certain cases and situations as long as one can demonstrate an appropriately equivalent level of safety of operation. For more information, checkout FAA Part 107 getting started website.
Drones Add Value to Business and Public Safety
A new, rapidly evolving function of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) offers more meaningful impact and can bring incremental value to business and industrial operations. UAVs with specific and specialized payloads add tremendous value to business operations and public safety. These payloads can range from still image cameras and thermal image cameras to sensors or radios. Initial use cases include aerial surveillance and inspection of property using still image cameras. Some prime examples of this use case is in commercial building construction home inspections, real estate assessment, insurance claims and industrial inspections on oil rigs, utility and power plants, etc.
For local & federal governments, new, evolving UAV use cases provide assistance with more traditional government services such as highway inspections. The current interstate highway system is over 75 years old and requires ongoing inspection to prevent tragic roadway and bridge failures like the I-35 bridge collapse that resulted in the deaths of 13 people in Minnesota. With regular aerial inspections, images captured by a drone could have identified cracks and fissures in the structural integrity of the I-35 bridge. Likewise, UAVs are increasing utilitzed to inspect vegetation growth around electric power lines, check water levels in flood prone areas, help contain wildfires, and monitor traffic and crowds at outdoor events.
Smart Drones for Smart Cities
In the not too distance future, we anticipate smart cities will deploy a managed drone fleet to be shared among the city’s first responders. Austin Fire Department’s Robotics Emergency Deployment (RED) team is already investigating the use of UAVs as first eyes on dangerous fire situations while firefighters and equipment roll to the sites. Austin Police Department’s Vehicle Homicide Unit will soon deploy their drones to map out and reconstruct accident sites to assist with criminal investigations. These new, smarter government use cases will help reduce tragic loss of life while helping keep first responders, utility workers, and other civic servants safer when deployed in field operations.
Government leaders should look for more ways to leverage this emerging technology, explore the use of the devices to address local civic issues with a recognition that UAVs can be part of broader public safety solutions. For example, earlier this year, Austin, Texas was held captive by the package bomber. Over 300 FBI agents assisted in the investigation to identify and apprehend the bomber. When unexpected packages showed up on citizens’ porches or door steps, thousands of people inundated the FBI hotline, the Texas Department of Public Safety Coordinated Response Center, and the City of Austin. Appropriately equipped piloted UAVs could have been deployed to residences to respond to many of these sightings and to alleviate public concerns while keeping law enforcement out of harm’s way.
The Value of Data Analytics and Visualization Tools
Extracting maximum value from drones requires the collection of data through still imagery, streaming video, sound and other forms of data collected from intelligent aerial devices. Technologists transform this raw data into more meaningful insights through dashboards and visualization tools that enable useful, actionable insight for decision makers in (near) real-time.
Future Drone Technologies
In the future, UAVs will become the first eyes on nearly every conceivable critical situation businesses or governments may encounter. In most cases, UAVs react more rapidly and minimize risk to human safety when deployed into critical situations. Perhaps insurance inspectors won’t have to climb on steep roofs to check for hail damage anymore and bomb squads can deactivate danger from afar. Additionally, as computer vision becomes increasing more accurate, UAVs will become more autonomous and require less human piloting. Just like autonomous driving vehicles, UAVs will increasingly build upon multi-levels of autonomy and federal standards until the device can automatically launch itself, run its mission, and return to base with little to no human intervention. The payback to businesses and governments could be astounding. The reduction in liability from human error could have a far greater impact.
There is little doubt that the evolving use of drone technology is compelling and can impact many aspects of business and industry. Small UAV devices as governed by the FAA Part 107 are becoming a critical tool for business and government efficiency and productivity. As the technology for automation evolves, so too will the regulatory environment and adaption of this increasingly pervasive UAV technology. Now, if I can just get my favorite online shopping website to deliver my packages via an autonomous UAV to my door step within minutes of my order, well, life would be grand!