“By allowing all these people to get their work done remotely we can keep critical assets functioning and larger construction, engineering, planning and environmental projects moving forward.“
– Andrew Chapman
Learn more on: https://www.auav.com.au/
Andrew Chapman, Co-Director & CTO at AUAV
The SARS-CoV-2 virus is currently causing lockdowns around the globe, forcing people to stay home. While we read a lot about how last-mile drone delivery can help in the crisis, are there also any use cases in your industries where drones can be helpful? If so, are companies aware of these options?
Andrew Chapman: Yes, it has been great to see drones getting some traction around delivery and emergency response uses like monitoring, public announcements and aerial spray of disinfectant.
We have some projects moving ahead in that space too, but our focus is really the huge opportunity for drones to help keep people working remotely while they’re isolated, and so cushion the blow to the economy.
The move to ‘Digital Twin’ workflows has been slowly progressing over the past few years, driven by efficiency and safety improvements, but the interest has suddenly jumped forward in the COVID lock-down scenario. Drones can provide high-res 3D data to people who are now working from home, all viewable through a standard web browser so they can easily undertake asset inspections, virtual site visits, planning, design, safety compliance and other tasks. By allowing all these people to get their work done remotely we can keep critical assets functioning and larger construction, engineering, planning and environmental projects moving forward. We’re hoping this keeps various aspects of the economy running which might otherwise be shut down for a while, and so avoid some job losses and help ease the downturn.
What are the biggest challenges for these applications? And, what are you doing to overcome them?
Andrew Chapman: We’re needing to adjust on a daily basis around travel restrictions and COVID working protocols. Many of the state borders in Australia shut down last week, so our projects in some of the more remote locations are now a challenge. We don’t normally have staff based in those areas, so we’re needing to find suitable local companies to outsource the flying to, and remotely train them up on our capture methodologies to achieve the same kind of results. We then take that data for processing and online access. It adds some delays and cost but means we can still get the results.
The other challenge is the various layers of COVID-19 policies which we need to operate by: from our internal policies and client policies to state and federal government policies. We still need one or two of our own staff present to do the work, and in some cases we can fly the drones from outside the client’s site but we often still need access. So we’re working out how to do that without interacting with anyone (e.g they open the gate while we remain in our vehicles). Many organisations have put a blanket ban in place for any external workers on their sites, but in some cases we’ve been able to organize exceptions when we explain that we don’t need to touch anything or interact with anyone, and we can then save 10 or more others from being there.
Beside the coronavirus crisis, have your tasks as a Drone Service Provider (DSP) changed over the past few years and what do you think the future will look like?
Andrew Chapman: One of the big themes we’re noticing is a move to consolidate from a hobby industry made up of many small enthusiast operators, maturing into larger specialist companies. Moving from early trials and testing to large scale rollout of inspection and survey programs, it’s not really feasible that a small company would have both the depth and breadth of technical knowledge and capability to reliably provide that level of service as demand scales up. We’re in discussions with various companies who see the same issue and are open to combining forces, but of course we’ll need to see how things play out in the coming months. I think it will still happen but may be delayed as the economy re-establishes itself.
The other big change is a move to smaller drone platforms. When we started it was all using $50-$100k drones and the dream was a large fleet of big expensive things. What we’ve realized over the years is that smaller is better, if you can get the same sensor capability in a 1kg package rather than a 10kg package, everything gets cheaper, easier and safer. This is already happening: DJI made a very clever move in getting the Mavic Mini below the minimum weight category for most international drone regulations, and look at the sensors being packed into other tiny drones like the Skydio 2, and the Autel Evo 2 with its 48 megapixel camera. I look forward to a sub-250g drone with 1+ hour flight time, 100MP camera and miniaturized LiDAR in the next few years. This is a double-edged sword for Drone Service Providers though – it is no longer about the equipment as that will be cheap, ubiquitous and with amazing capability, so it’s about what sort of data processing, analysis and reporting you can provide by using the tech, not the tech itself.
AUAV is one of the leading Drone Service Providers in Australia. In which industries is AUAV active and which ones do you currently consider to be the most mature?
Andrew Chapman: We might be one of the leading service providers, but some of our clients actually have internal programs with more drones and pilots than we do! We still work with them though on challenging or large-scale projects, and supporting them to keep moving with the technology, or by using our inSite drone data platform.
I’d say the highest maturity we see is in the engineering world, as they’re already very technically capable, and constantly pushing for better ways of doing things. Like us they have been driving the change to ‘Digital Transformation’ for years now, as they have highly qualified engineers on staff that they would prefer to be 100% productive and safe in the office, rather than spending time travelling between remote sites and risking injury by working at heights or in hazardous conditions. Some of these have their own drone programs too, but unless you focus on it as your company’s core business it is hard to stay on the leading edge, at least not without the support of a partner with that focus.
And to swing it the other way I would say Local Government is probably the slowest mover with the most still to gain. They have many different internal teams who would benefit from digital data (e.g. roads/bridges, housing, sports fields, water, assets, property management, waste, environmental, urban planning, heritage, etc) and in many cases a single data capture session can provide many of them with the results they need. They serve large geographic areas and often have many thousands of assets to manage, yet few of them have realized the benefits or are adopting this at scale. We have some great clients in this area though, and are doing what we can to spread the message!
Enabling a frequent operation in BVLOS conditions is still an unsolved problem after many years. What, do you think, is the reason for that and do you see BVLOS operation still as big chance for the market?
Andrew Chapman: Yes, this is a frustration for everyone who stands to benefit from drones regularly patrolling things like power lines, pipelines, rail corridors and our coastlines.
The core issue is that manned aviation regulation moves incredibly slowly, as it is rightfully very risk averse. No new technology can be brought in without decades of testing and certification, so even if we had the perfect UTM solution in 2020 we’d be unlikely to see the manned aviation world regulated to use it before about 2040.
One possible solution lies in the miniaturization of drones as mentioned above – if they can be small and light enough that everyone agrees they pose no substantial risk in the event of a collision, then hopefully they can be exempted for BVLOS work.
And although it is a controversial view, I personally feel it is inevitable that we will flip the airspace regulation around and say that drones are the boss under 300m/1000ft. If manned aircraft want to operate there, they will need to play by our rules and participate in the UTM, otherwise stay above that height other than at airports. Until now we’re only allowed to operate drones where it can be demonstrated that they pose no risk to anyone in the airspace, which includes private pilots flying around in 70 year old aircraft without any modern avionics on board, sometimes not even a radio. That makes the task very difficult. But soon the economic benefits of drones will eclipse the needs of light aircraft, and hopefully things like police and emergency services helicopters that need to operate at low-level will have the tech on board to communicate with the UTM to establish realtime clearings for them as they come and go at this height.
Parts of the world who aren’t so risk averse will likely leapfrog the West on this though. They know the lives saved by a national program to deliver vaccines, medicine and organ transfer in the absence of transport infrastructure will outweigh the extremely small risk of a collision, and negate the right for private pilots to fly around wherever they like at low level.
I think we’re also likely to see the drone regulations split off as separate departments from the traditional aviation regulators. To me it doesn’t make a lot of sense for the same group of people to be regulating A380s packed with hundreds of people on board, and something weighing 500g that fits in the palm of your hand. One end of that spectrum is focused on keeping billions of air transport passengers safe, and so is understandably conservative and slow-acting, while the other end of the spectrum needs very dynamic minds to keep up with the technology. It’s asking a bit much that the same group of people can do both, and so of course the outcome is the one we have: the newer drone industry is being slowed to the pace of the traditional aviation regulators. They’re doing the best they can, but it’s not really the right framework for success.