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On July 22, 2016, some hungry 7-Eleven customers in Reno, Nevada received the first fully autonomous, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)-approved drone delivery to a private residence. Hovering over their backyard, an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) gently deposited their order: icy Slurpee drinks, a chicken sandwich, donuts, hot coffee and candy. The goods were transported by drone delivery service Flirtey inside a special container, with the historic milestone representing a new frontier in beyond visual line-of-sight (BVLOS) UAV operations.
While the 7-Eleven delivery required a special flight planning and risk analysis process, one thing seems certain: it’s a harbinger of things to come.
As UAVs proliferate throughout global airspace, researchers are working to find ways of ensuring safer operations for these systems, which must co-exist in the skies with manned aircraft of all sizes and shapes.
Since 1992, Ottawa’s Carleton University has been a leader in UAV research and development. Back then, a team of students from the university developed an unmanned concept aircraft designed to spot forest fires. Today, Carleton staff and students are involved in every conceivable aspect of UAV design and research.
“The last five or six years have really seen an escalation of activities for UAVs,” confirmed Jeremy Laliberté, director of Carleton’s Aerospace Research Group and associate professor, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. “We’ve been looking at airborne geophysics, improved autopilot and flight control systems, rotary-wing UAVs, and using UAVs in research — geographical research, for example.”
The university’s aerospace research unit is home to about 30 professors, with work underway on a wide range of topics including aerodynamics and propulsion, human factors and pilot training, and even the biological flight of insects.
Laliberté, who arrived at Carleton in 2008 after spending a decade with the National Research Council, said most of his work with companies such as Bombardier and General Dynamics centres on advanced composite materials used in aircraft manufacturing.
“At the moment, most of my work is related to durability and damage tolerance, so looking at manned aircraft and the long-term durability and survivability of composites,” he said. “How do they react to sun exposure, moisture, or environmental contaminants like fuel and oil? We’re looking at how they age and degrade over time. We have a pretty good understanding of metals and how they corrode; but composites are fairly new so there is a lot of testing, mainly experimental.”
His group is also developing manufacturing methods for special purpose UAVs for geophysics, an application which requires non-magnetic materials.
Lately, Laliberté has migrated into sensor, mission and payload research extending beyond the airframe of a UAV. Sometimes, that work involves collaborating with a faculty member from another department — in architecture, for example, where UAVs are being used to map sensitive heritage sites.
“That’s where things have gotten quite interesting,” said Laliberté. “We’ll work with them on the engineering side to figure out how they can mount cameras and solve other issues. These are cross-department, cross-discipline types of activities.”
While UAVs commonly fly in Canada within the operator’s line-of-sight, according to Transport Canada’s special flight operations certificate approvals process, the new frontier is undoubtedly beyond visual line-of-sight operations. That’s why the 7-Eleven food delivery in Reno heralds a new age in UAV operations. Yes, it happened south of the border; but there’s no doubt similar operations will be taking place in Canada very soon. And, with online retailer Amazon also testing aerial package delivery vehicles in the U.K., the race is on to develop all kinds of new applications for drones.
But according to Laliberté, there are two gaps in today’s technology which limit safe BVLOS operations.
“One is making sure we have aircraft equipped with technologies, like ADS-B [automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast], that will allow aircraft to see each other and communicate their position, heading, and speed,” he said. “There are companies like Google working on lightweight and low-cost ADS-B In and Out equipment; this could go on any UAV and won’t cost much.”
But the other piece of the puzzle will be developing technologies that can sense and avoid what Laliberté calls “non-cooperative” air traffic — obstacles such as communications towers, hot air balloons, and even birds. “We need other technologies that can function in place of the pilot’s eyes on the aircraft,” he explained. “We’ve been working on cameras that can identify and distinguish a bird from a cloud, for instance.”
The idea behind this research is to develop a family of technologies that together provides seamless sense and avoid ability for all types of UAV missions. Laliberté sees this piece as being absolutely critical to enabling safe UAV operations in the world’s airspace.
One of those operational applications will undoubtedly be geophysical mapping. While some of the specialized sensing equipment is very large and heavy (making a continued case for manned aircraft), magnetometry instruments are shrinking in size; some are now close to the size of a deck of cards. This means that small unmanned vehicles will be perfect for conducting precision surveys of small areas.
“I think there will be a place [in geophysics] for both UAVs and manned aircraft,” said Laliberté. “UAVs will likely replace walking surveys. During testing, what took a week to do on foot we did in an hour [with a UAV], and results were comparable. However, I think we’re 10 to 20 years away from UAVs having the capability and range to do lengthy surveys over large areas.”
As in all sectors of aviation, he added that the type of operation dictates the equipment that is required. “You have to think about the mission first to determine the [UAV] capabilities you need. What are you trying to accomplish?”
An “explosion of missions”
While regulators continue their efforts to catch up to the rapidly advancing UAV industry, Laliberté admitted he is concerned about safety and privacy issues.
“I was at Mac’s Milk the other day, and they had helicopters sitting up above the cigarettes,” he said. “I think we need three things to make sure the skies are safe: education, enforcement and engagement. We need to educate the public and local police; we need better enforcement and expanded reporting mechanisms; and we need engagement of the broader community, including educational institutions, product retailers, and groups like Unmanned Systems Canada.”
He theorized that something akin to a boating licence might be necessary to operate smaller UAVs, while larger ones will require a more formal licensing process.
While UAV regulations continue to take shape across the world, there’s no doubt that unmanned aerial vehicles are here to stay. According to the business website MarketWatch, drone sales in the U.S. increased by 224 percent from April 2015 to April 2016.
With all those UAVs in the sky, the need for reliable sense and avoid technology becomes obvious.
“That will need to happen to enable all the things people want to do with UAVs, such as package delivery,” concluded Laliberté. “Then, we will see an explosion of missions.”