In the last century, we went from dreaming about the possibility of human flight to taking airplanes for granted. Trips that once took days, months, years, or even generations, can now be made in just hours. Imagine what it must have been like to live on a remote Pacific island and rowing a boat to New Zealand. Imagine walking for months across desert lands to find trading partners. Today, we hardly blink an eye to board an airplane to Africa if we want to visit the elephants. Today, people and goods travel easily across borders creating a global marketplace that has raised the standard of living for billions of people. It takes a global village of millions of people and thousands of companies to make our aviation system run so safely and efficiently.
Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), or drones, are the next frontier for aviation technology, and hold tremendous promise to benefit billions of people in their everyday lives.
We’re already enjoying the benefits of drones. Millions have already been delivered. Of course, one of the more popular uses of drones is aerial photography, whether that be capturing some epic footage of your buddy surfing or snapping an aerial perspective of a house for a real estate listing.
Drones are also being used for all kinds of industrial inspection. Essentially anywhere you once had to put a person with a set of eyes, you can now put a flying robot with a camera! This is saving time, money, and human lives in hazardous places. Energy companies, mobile phone network operators, railroads, and even airports are benefiting from drones for these purposes.
Farmers are using drones to monitor their crops. Where it once may have been cost prohibitive to gain near-real-time insight into the health of plants, drones are making this viable, increasing crop yields. It’s early days in this area, but drone use in precision agriculture is promising. In Japan, drones have been used for crop dusting for a very long time, and we’re starting to see this in the US and other countries as well.
Public safety agencies are finding important applications for drones. Police departments can use drones to monitor an officer’s safety during a foot pursuit with a suspect. Fire departments can use drones to look behind a burning building before sending firefighters into harm’s way.
And of course, very soon we’ll be moving goods by drone. I can’t wait!
And if you can deliver packages, you can deliver people. That’s maybe a bit simplistic, but the future that many of us dreamed about when watching the Jetsons is now closer than it’s ever been.
All of these applications have one thing in common — they happen in the low-altitude airspace. Millions of drones will soon be operating billions of flights, and we must work together to build the airspace management system that will support these operations.
Our industry has a long history of collaboration. The first heavier-than-air drone flew in September 1917. The Hewitt-Sperry Automatic Airplane was built in collaboration between Peter Hewitt and Elmer Sperry. Hewitt was a pioneer in radio control and Sperry ran the Sperry Gyroscope Company. He was the autopilot expert of the day. Although the Hewitt-Sperry Automatic Airplane didn’t find great commercial or military success, it did represent an important milestone in the development of unmanned aircraft, and it couldn’t have been done without these two gentlemen collaborating, sharing their expertise with one-another to help build new technology.
So how does collaboration happen? Thousands of innovators around the world are working to help make the promise of drones a reality. There are people working on vehicles, flight control systems, sensors, operating models, airspace services, and other aspects. Creating the connections between these people and the capabilities that they offer is the key to success in building the airspace infrastructure.
One person that we should all celebrate in this effort is Parimal Kopardikar — better known as PK. In just about nine months after starting the NASA UTM initiative, PK was able to bring more than 100 companies together as collaborators and, together with AUVSI Silicon Valley chapter, he brought together more than 1,000 people last summer at Ames Research Center for the UTM Convention. Gur Kimchi from Amazon Prime Air and Dave Vos from Google Project Wing each gave keynote addresses. PK’s efforts have inspired others. Just in the last month, we’ve seen a Global UTM Association forming based in Switzerland.
Let’s also thank Phil McNamara, Suzanne Jordan, and Francois Colussi for organizing Drones Data X. This is an amazing event. It’s not a typical boring conference with a bunch of speakers, but an opportunity for all of us to get together socially, to get to know one-another, and to share experiences. Last November, I had the opportunity to spend a couple of days with many of you in Ireland. At Francois’s Pure Magic Lodge on the western edge of Ireland, I shared a room with three other drone people, and stayed up until nearly daybreak singing Irish folk songs and playing Werewolves and Villagers, which seems to be the preferred icebreaker activity for our industry.
So how does technical collaboration happen? We all benefit from an incredible open source community that we can thank for Ardupilot and Pixhawk. These technologies have truly accelerated development of drone technology. We’re also seeing companies like DJI creating SDKs that make it easy for innovators to build apps on top of their vehicles.
At AirMap, our contribution is tools that help drone manufacturers and app developers bring airspace information and services into their products. For example, our Map SDK can be used to easily bring global airspace maps to drone operators. This helps operators understand where it’s safe to fly. Just in the last week, I ran into three people who each told me that they would like to buy a drone, but haven’t done so yet because they keep hearing that drones can’t fly here or can’t fly there and they’re confused about where it’s good to fly. Bringing this airspace information to end users in a simple way will help answer that question and further accelerate adoption and drone sales.
There are many places where flying is permitted, but a notice must be given. For example, in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, the U.S. Congress mandated that hobbyist drone operators give notice of their flights when flying within five miles of an airport. We are now offering an API that allows you to give your end users the ability to give digital notice where required.
We’ve also recently introduced a traffic alert feature. This, too, can be brought into your apps and drones through our API. If a manned aircraft is on a trajectory that will create a conflict with the area where your drone is operating, we provide an alert and detailed information about the position, direction, and time before that manned aircraft will be in your area.
Our Status API makes it simple to give end users a very easy answer about whether or not any particular place is a safe place to fly. Think of it as a green light, yellow light, or red light system. Green means it’s a good place to fly. Red means it’s a bad place to fly. Yellow means you can fly there, but there might be something you have to do, like give notice for example.
And our airspace data can also be used for geofencing. The airspace information is dynamic, with things like temporary flight restrictions, so this can be used to prevent conflicts between drones and firefighting aircraft, for example, as we saw in last summer’s wildfire season.
DJI has taken one of the most sophisticated approaches to airspace alerts and geofencing. The new DJI GEO system users AirMap’s API to alert users to various airspace considerations near their area of operation, and also to geofence drones where there might be some critical safety consideration. But geofencing is complicated. What if you’re an airline mechanic and you want to use a drone to inspect the tail of your airliner after a lightening strike? What if you’re a firefighter and you want to be able to get an aerial perspective of a wildfire despite there be a temporary flight restriction? DJI’s answer is geofence unlocking. Using AirMap’s user verification service, by providing a verified phone number or credit card number, your DJI verified account allows you to unlock the geofence, creating a simple accountability mechanism. This is a very light touch approach, but ensures that those choosing to operate in those areas recognize that there are significant safety considerations.
More than five hundred app developers and manufacturers are now signed up for our SDK, and we’ve been slowly releasing it to select partners. A few examples include Drone Logbook, which just launched its airspace feature last week, 3DR which provides airspace alerts when you open the Solo App, as well as an airspace map, and apps like Hover and KittyHawk which have quite a following.
The FAA-industry collaboration Know Before You Fly website is also leveraging AirMap’s services.
As I mentioned briefly earlier, developers can use the AirMap API to help end users provide digital notice where required. So how do we get entities like airports on board? We partnered with the American Association of Airport Executives, which represents executives at 850 of America’s biggest airports, to launch the Digital Notice and Awareness System, or D-NAS. Here you see an image of the D-NAS dashboard for airports, which shows the locations of drone flights near the airport. The system also allows the airport to set up automatic messaging to operators, alerting them to various airspace conditions depending upon where exactly that drone operation is happening near the airport.
The success of our industry depends upon both technical and business collaborations. We are in the very nascent stage of an amazing movement, and I’m excited to be working with all of you to build the future.
This is a recap of AirMap CEO Ben Marcus’ presentation at Drones Data X in San Francisco, on June 3, 2016. Find more of Ben’s recent writings at Medium.