When the world was consumed in arguments about viability of driverless cars, something of a higher order was taking place in Dubai. The city of sky high buildings witnessed world’s first self-flying taxi in September 2017. Moreover, the ruler of the city, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum announced that he envisioned such pilotless passenger flights to be a routine, rather than an exception over the next five years.
We have already read or seen drones in action — e-commerce and pharma companies delivering urgent orders, armed forces monitoring dangerous war-zones, and hobbyists and film producers filming breath-taking aerial shots. However, passenger drones were still largely considered a far-fetched dream until the above mentioned pilot project in Dubai took off. With the introduction of artificial intelligence and blockchain-based unmanned aircraft system (UAS) and unmanned traffic management (UTM) platform which provides collision avoidance and geo-fencing, the safety of drone flights has increased considerably. Therefore, regulators all over the world are happy to go easy on regulations about unmanned flights.
With increasing use cases in the coming days, we will have more reasons to trust the accuracy of autonomous flights and believe that the future of aviation will be very different from today. Let us take a glimpse into this future:
Cargo Carriers Are Getting Stronger
After passenger applications, cargo delivery is perhaps the most important part of commercial aviation industry. Drone-based cargo deliveries increase speed, accuracy and bring down costs. However, the only concern so far was about the weight carrying capacity of a drone.
However, the scenario can change significantly with the entry of traditional manufacturers. For instance, in January 2018, Boeing launched a drone prototype which could fly with much more than a lightweight camera. Even though we still do not know the complete specifications and capability of this new drone, industry analysts believe that this Boeing drone can haul more than 500 lbs of goods during a 30 to 45-minutes long flight. With more long distance drone-based successful test flights, we may not need to use the conventional aircrafts for cargo.
Expect Faster Response During Emergency
In the last few years, the world has come across several natural and manmade disasters. Be it the hurricane Harvey (August 2017), floods in India, China, Bangladesh, and Sierra Leone (March-August 2017), or Northern Carolina wildfire (October 2017), drones have played a crucial role to reach areas where a usual airplane or helicopter could not have reached due to inaccessibility, poor visibility or health and safety risks of the pilots. These unmanned flights not only provide lifesaving supplies but also collect critical data which improves the emergency response. For instance, during the Northern Carolina wildfire, dozens of were saved because drone-based data helped rescuers identify the precise location of the people stuck amidst the dense forest.
Less Dependence On Air-turbine Fuel
Off late, the global prices of air turbine fuel (ATF) have been on an uneven trajectory. Every time there is some geopolitical turmoil in the world, the aviation industry has a nervous breakdown because of ATF price hike. With battery-powered drones that can carry payload over long distance, the dependence of aviation industry on ATF will come down considerably. As cargo logistics cost comes down, there will be a positive impact on the world economy.
Overall Safety And Cost-Effectiveness
Before the advent of drone technology, gathering aerial data and imagery was a tough as well as expensive affair compared to the tediousness of manual, on-foot methods. Now, drones are capable of recording data quickly and perform different inspections in much lesser time and at a relatively cheaper cost than ever before. This not only saves time, but also helps with keeping men secure from otherwise hazardous jobs. Before a construction begins, a drone can fly to gather data and capture 3D maps from that area, which further helps in planning. This can be repeated with the drone capturing progress that can be compared at a later stage.
A new research at John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Pittsburgh Supercomputing Centre found out that using unmanned drones to deliver vaccines (like Malaria, Zika or childhood vaccines) in low-and middle-income countries may save money and improve the overall vaccination rates. The cost savings would come from drones being able to deliver vaccines quicker and cheaper than land-based methods limited by road conditions and increasing prices of fuel.
India’s Stand On Drones
We have already seen the value of using drones in various scenarios. The above list is only indicative and far from complete. Given the potential use cases of drones across industries, India, too is working towards a regulatory framework to encourage the commercial usage of drones. In early 2018, the Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) released a new draft of the regulatory policies related to drones. While the regulations are still tougher than countries like US or Canada, it is a positive move for the Indian government towards embracing the technology.
In fact, the Gas Authority of India Ltd. (GAIL) had also deployed a drone pilot project back in 2017 to inspect their gas pipelines and overall security.
Drones can be especially effective in delivery of goods and services in border areas which are typically characterised by low connectivity or in inspecting forest areas that are otherwise difficult keep a track of manually. For example, Haryana’s forest department is testing the usage of drones to increase surveillance in the Aravali range. Vinod Kumar, conservator of forest (Wildlife), Gurgaon Circle, said, “Using drones is the best way to patrol forest areas. Drones are better than satellites in capturing images. As of now, we are going to have one drone in the Gurgaon area. The drone will be able to zoom into areas, so that if there is any violation – tree cutting or encroachment — it can be tracked.”
In urban areas too, drones can be used for governance. Gurugram, for instance, helps the Haryana government with Project Udaan where drones are used to update decades-old land records, check encroachments and resolve disputes over land and property.
While drones are not a threat to the conventional aviation industry, it can transform several aspects of it. The evolution curve tells us that it is just a matter of tackling the negative perceptions about safety of unmanned flights.