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Drones – a help or hindrance to society?

Just how much of an impact can these small flying machines have on the world, you might ask?

Well, according to a recent report from PWC, over 76,000 drones could be in skies across the UK in 12 years’ time. This, quite incredibly, has the potential to add £42bn to UK GDP by 2030, it states, but with a number of rising issues with a fraction of those drones in our airspace, will this technology grow to be our friend or foe?

Bamboo recently sponsored an event from G-First LEP, called Evolution of Drones, where local experts provided insights across a range of topics. While doing so, they also covered how these technologies will be subject to heavy investment, innovation, enhancement and exponential growth in years to come.

The potential of these little flying machines, which are becoming increasingly affordable, for both consumers and business users alike, is undoubtedly already having an impact on industries across the UK.

One of the first speakers - Barry Richards, Co-founder and Director of Drone Control told us about the positive implications drones have had on the defence and security industries in the UK. This was largely thanks to the abilities they have to gather data in various forms including via night vision, infrared and live feed capabilities. He explained that security drone solutions are the perfect choice to carry out day or night surveillance missions of any kind, such as sensitive site monitoring, border patrol and even crowd control.

And it isn’t just the defence and security industries that benefit from drone technology, even the Police have found advantages.

Chief Inspector of the Gloucestershire Police and Crime Commissioning Office, Alistair Barby, demonstrated how the emergency services had furthered their capabilities by using drones in scenarios such as missing persons, using heat-seeking cameras; at fire arm incidents, fire breakouts and also for surveillance. It must help that they’re a lot cheaper to deploy than helicopters and quite a bit less noisy too!

Interestingly, he spoke of further ambitions to use this technology to provide 3D imaging capability to the Police for crime scenes, that could then be shown to juries in court using a 3D headset.

Even the way we grow our food across the world is being impacted by drones. By now, most of us know that the UN believe that world food production must double by 2050 to meet demand; so productivity gains from any technology, including drones, would therefore be a welcome addition to society.

That’s where Jeff Goulding, Business Development Manager at Hummingbird Technologies came in, revealing that in agriculture, drones have enabled methods such as precision farming and different data analysis options such as crop imagery and yield prediction maps. With ‘high end’ drones, for example, data from up to 500 hectares can be collected in a single flight, which is equivalent to 800 football pitches!

Just from this small acid test, it’s clear that drones of all shapes and sizes are enabling growth of industry capabilities in more ways than many originally thought possible through enhancements in connectivity, productivity and capability. And we shouldn’t forget that these capabilities may well be exemplified many, many times with the implementation of 5G - with the early stages of a ‘full’ rollout due to begin between mid-2019 and 2020.

As you might expect however, it isn’t all good news. The events of Gatwick are still very fresh in peoples’ minds and sadly, this has created a negative public perception for drones and a new stream of stories for the national press, that now seem to report on drone incidents far more regularly.

It doesn’t help that even on world-renowned film sets like those of HBO’s Game of Thrones, there have allegedly been incidents with drones. It’s believed that this led its creators to film multiple endings for its last series due to spying and potential spoilers for its millions of fans across the world.

Although this might cause a bit of a Twitter meltdown, a much bigger worry for the panel at the Evolution of Drones event was the capability of an emergence of ‘Danger Drones’ that can be flown onto the top of buildings and used to hack into unprotected systems in that area to gather data.

Quite a scary prospect, and that’s why figuring out countermeasures for these types of incidents is therefore something that needs great attention from government, the police and industry alike.

Anthony Lawrenson, Research and Development Director at Salus UAV reiterated this when speaking about training, legislation and safety concerns surrounding drones and how safety management systems should be instilled.

The biggest risks, from his perspective, were loss of connectivity and human operation factors.

Now, it goes without saying that if a drone has the potential to drop out of the sky and hit a person, car or valuable object, there is obviously a need for its movements to be risk assessed. Whether that’s through human error or loss of connection, licensed training and procedures must be in place to mitigate risk and damage when using drones of all shapes and sizes.

Notably, if you’re looking to use your drone for commercial purposes, you need to be licensed by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) but, should the everyday user that got a drone for Christmas have a licence too? It’s an open question.

So, now we’ve looked at the applications and risks, what does the future look like?

In a word; autonomy.

Achieving true autonomy for drones in the lower etchings of our airspace, much like has been achieved on the road in its early stages for Tesla and its self-driving cars in the US, is not an easy task.

For the more technically adept attendees, it was suggested that low power ADSB (a GPS system) at a common frequency, such as 868, would be a starter step and enable tracking of the location of drones.

Collaboration between drone manufacturers, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and government will be key to ensure that regulators are not overtaken by the speed of innovation in this area. Only then will achieving the goal of autonomous drones while fully harnessing their potential in a safe, positive and beneficial manner for society be possible.

Will drones be viewed as a friend of foe of the public in years to come? We’ll have to wait and find out.

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