Earlier this year in February a Robinson R22 helicopter collided with a drone resulting in a crash-landing in South Carolina, USA. The occupants of the aircraft fortunately escaped without injuries. This was the first reported aircraft crash involving collision with a drone.
Another collision between a helicopter and a drone was reported in Switzerland in May. Earlier, in September 2017, a Black Hawk helicopter collided with a DJI phantom drone in New York. The investigation report indicated that one of the causes of the accident was due to ‘UAS (i.e., drone) pilot’s incomplete knowledge of the regulations and safe operating procedures’.
Several close encounters between drones and manned aircraft have provoked great anxiety about the safe flight of aircraft especially during landing approach and take-off.
The incidents cited above could easily have occurred in Kenya. Helicopter usage is quite popular, while many drone users are not familiar with the rules governing the use of the airspace; some operators may not even be aware that such rules exist.
Drones are unsafe in other ways. A drone can cause injury, or even death when it strikes someone.The pilot of a remotely piloted aircraft was killed in a fluke accident in 2013 in New York after the model aircraft that he was flying struck him on the head. Impact by large drones can cause considerable damage to property and lead to loss of life.
Safety is the overriding consideration in aviation. Drones pose other safety risks. They are low flying and can get entangled with power lines leading to power outages and danger of fires.
Conversations about operation of drones revolve around three main issues: Safety, Security and Privacy.
All stakeholders need to participate in these conversations. This concerns you if you are interested in drones and would like to operate one, either for recreation or commercially. This concerns you if you are a pilot and regularly use the airspace. If you live on the ground and are concerned about your safety, security and privacy then this concerns you as well!
The second major concern with the proliferation of drones is security. Drones have earned notoriety in recent times due to their wide use in airstrikes by USA in conflict zones. Drones come in all shapes and sizes. The Reaper and Predator drones that have been used to inflict so much havoc in the Middle East are shaped, sized and powered much like conventional aircraft. In contrast, the DJI Phantom that is so beloved by videographers at weddings weights just over 1 kg, and is an electrically powered ‘quadcopter’. Both types of drones can carry munitions and weapons, and can be used to inflict damage by both state and non-state actors.
Drones have been flown over prisons to drop mobile phones and other contraband. They have been used for smuggling, and they can be used to carry out surveillance on a place before a crime.
Privacy concerns mainly revolve around unauthorised surveillance and dissemination of privileged information. People are accustomed to protecting their privacy by the use of fences and other physical barriers. They expect to enjoy privacy when in their private spaces. Common law considers two dimensions of invasion of privacy: Intrusion upon seclusion is concerned with the invasion of private space whereas publication of private facts that are offensive and are of no public concern is concerned with dissemination.
Drones can both intrude in private spaces and they also allow the collection and recording of copious amount of information. Drones have disrupted fences. They allow the invasion of privacy with much greater ease. Physical barriers no longer guarantee privacy. Drone usage throws us all open to the danger of becoming victims of all manner of peeping Toms.
Drones can track people and obtain vast amounts of data about their activities and interactions that could previously only be obtained at a great cost. These can be combined with other sources of data, for example, from persistent tracking by a Smartphone to give a worrying amount of data about somebody’s activities. Drones can be equipped with sophisticated equipment, including cameras with face recognition capability, number plate readers and thermal imaging; this totally strips us of all anonymity. A drone can follow and hover over somebody and cause emotional distress and alarm, introducing a new concept of ‘drone stalking’. Several cases have been reported of aggrieved people shooting at drones.
With all these risks, is the drone technology worth it? Should the uptake of this technology be tolerated at all? Why not just ban them? Indeed the laws governing drones in some countries mirror those that govern guns, cigarettes, alcohol and other vices: they betray a grudging toleration of the ‘vices’ and impose strict sanctions.
And yet drones have the potential to contribute to the economy in a big way when used for legitimate purposes. Adoption of drones can provide jobs, result in technology transfer, contribute to manufacturing, improve security and open up new frontiers of the economy.
Read also: Sleeping through the drone revolution
What is the impact of these legitimate interests, and how can they be incorporated into policy and regulation? That is the conversation for another day.
The writer heads the Department of Flying Studies in the School of Aerospace Sciences of Moi University. Views expressed in this article are his own. email@example.com
This article was published in the Daily Nation: Potential benefits aside, the use of drones should concern us all
Ride hailing taxi drivers on strike
Ride hailing companies had a bad week. Their drivers were on the streets and not in their cabs. They were on strike demanding an increase of their cut of the earnings. The premier ride hailing company Uber, for example, pockets 25 percent of their earnings, and leaves them the balance to meet all the operating and other expenses. Drivers were also protesting the decision by the ride hailing company to limit their working hours by logging them off the app after twelve hours of continuous work. This is a safety measure that was introduced so as to combat driver fatigue when it was reported that drivers were overworking themselves to fatigue and causing accidents. Passengers who have got accustomed to this mode of transportation are now in a lurch.
Future of ride hailing
What is the future of ride hailing? Will the mother companies eventually run their own fleets and remove the drivers from the equation? Uber is already experimenting with self-driving (also called ‘autonomous’) cars. On top of all this, they are also experimenting with pilotless aircraft. An article that appeared in the Business Daily Africa in early March reported that Uber was one of the companies that had applied to the aviation regulator, Kenya Civil Aviation Authority KCAA for a permit to test their drones. This followed the drafting of the remotely piloted aircraft system (RPAS) regulations. It was reported that Uber was working on passenger carrying drones that were to be operated as air taxis.
But Uber does not manufacture drones. Is the company changing its business? The model fronted by Uber is to utilise the pilotless aircraft in much the same way that it intends to operate its autonomous ride-sharing road vehicles. Uber Elevate is the company’s light-aircraft ride sharing project. Uber is partnering with several companies for the manufacture of the aircraft: Flight Sciences, Pipistrel Aircraft, Embraer, Mooney and Bell among others. It has also brought in NASA to assist in developing software for air traffic management. NASA has wide experience in air traffic management.
Air taxis are now the rage
Talk of the impending introduction of drone-based air taxis is currently all the rage. It has sucked in several start ups as well as some major aviation players and even car manufacturers. Several companies are working on some form of urban air mobility. These innovations are geared towards solving problems of traffic congestion in large cities.
Congestion in road transportation is not a new phenomenon. It is a feature of all large modern cities. Many industrialised countries attempted to evade congested roads by going underground through the implementation of subway trains. Underground trains are now very popular, with the Shanghai subway carrying about 10 million passengers in a day. Air taxis take the opposite direction, and attempt to solve the problems of ordinary commuting by resorting to the air instead. The mythical flying carpet from oriental tales was reputed to be able to transport its passengers in the twinkling of an eye. Los Angeles estimates that use of an air taxi will cut an eighty minute commute by car to four minutes by a flying taxi. Use of air taxis will obviously allow one to buy back several minutes from his life!
Uber is developing several air taxi concepts. It expects to start flying air taxis in Texas by 2023. It also intends to develop air taxi services for Los Angeles in time for the city’s 2028 Olympics.
Race for the prize
Uber are not the only ones interested in air taxis. Several companies are racing to launch the first successful passenger carrying drone. Chinese drone manufacturer Ehang have made the most significant progress after the testing its air taxi in Dubai. The public flight of the Ehang unmanned passenger carrier was revolutionary. Ehang have now carried over 40 passengers and conducted thousands of unmanned test flights including a vertical climb to nearly 1,000 feet.
Other companies are also interested. Airbus has successfully tested an electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) autonomous drone, Vahana. The German Volocopter is an air taxi designed for two people. It features a ballistic parachute in case of catastrophic failure. They have also been tested in Dubai. The Volocopter will be compatible with a smartphone app, whereby you order one and have it pick you up like an Uber service. Munich-based Lilium is building a two-seater VTOL that it expects to be operational by 2025. Car manufacturers have not been left behind. Audi has designed a vehicle “for horizontal and vertical mobility”. Toyota has filed patents in VTOL control systems.
Dubai is actively seeking to be the pioneer in air taxi networks. It has the support of Dubai Road and Transport Authority that is advancing the VTOL network. Uber, Volocopter and eHang all have a presence in Dubai.
Autonomous passenger transportation is a big leap even by the standards of the burgeoning drone industry. This technology has now moved from technical design to the “real” world.
Transition from ride hailing: How an air taxi operates
So how does such a taxi work? What does it take to fly in such a taxi? Does one need a pilot’s license? Essentially you enter the vehicle, type in your destination (or use other means of input) and off you fly. Ehang 184 allows the passenger to mark his destination on an interactive map and the vehicle creates and executes a flight plan. Welcome to the brave new world! The era of the Flying Carpet has finally arrived….
Many of the proposed designs will initially have a “safety pilot” to take over in case of technology malfunction. In reality this is mainly to reassure passengers. Others will feature safety features like parachutes. How about navigation? Will there be crashes/collisions in the air? Different approaches may eventually be used.
These new generation air taxis are also variously called flying cars, roadable aircraft, vertical take-off and landing (VTOLs) and personal air vehicles. The air taxis are a result of a new convergence of technologies.
A lot of technological developments have made this possible. First is the way in which the aircraft are powered. There is a move towards electric-powered aircraft through the use of batteries. Another is developments in control of aircraft and global navigation satellite systems. Vertical Take-off and Landing aircraft (VTOL) have also been given new breath of life by air taxis.
Challenges of development of the new technology
The development of this new industry will have several ramifications. What will be the ownership structure of the autonomous taxis? Will there be limitations on foreign ownership? If allowed in Kenya, will they operate under drone laws or those governing passenger aircraft? What about freedoms of the air: will rules governing cabotage apply to foreign owned companies flying the passenger drones locally? Uber has already run into headwinds in several countries with its business model. How about safety? Who will take responsibility in case of accidents? We should learn from the March accident in which Uber’s driverless car fatally struck a pedestrian in Arizona, USA despite having a safety driver. Other questions may involve the local intellectual property resulting from the tests.
As the cabinet secretary for transport meets the striking ride-hailing taxi drivers, he may want to ponder on the challenges that Uber will eventually throw to his laps: What will happen when Uber removes the driver from the cab and the pilot from the aircraft, and still wants to transport passengers?
Air taxis will also be disruptive to commercial air transportation. If passengers accept to be flown by pilotless machines, then this will open the floodgates for a clamour to be allowed to apply the same technology in airlines. Low cost carriers have been pushing to be allowed to use only one pilot on their flights. Already there are proposals to use a single human ground pilot to supervise several single-pilot airliners. This could eventually lead to fully unmanned airliners.
Guinea pigs or partners in innovation?
So where are we in all this? Are we merely being used as a test bed so as to highlight any dangers, before the technologies are certified as safe in the developed world? Real world testing of new technology is crucial so as to guarantee safety.
Uber opened us to the possibility of ride hailing. It is now pointing us towards flight hailing. We should extract the maximum benefits from this technology. If we let the opportunity for becoming early adopter of this technology to slip away then Shakespeare’s words may well apply to us as a nation: “There is a tide in the affairs of men, taken at the flood leads to fortune. Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat, and we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures”
The writer is a lecturer. He heads the Department of Flying Studies in the School of Aerospace Sciences of Moi University. Views expressed in this article are his own. firstname.lastname@example.org . Twitter: @aerospaceKenya
The great drone revolution is afoot. Unmanned aerial vehicles are causing ripples across the world. This revolution follows the script of two other recent technological revolutions that took place just a few short years ago: mobile phones and computers.
Mobile phones democratised communication. This was made possible by the initial ‘convergence’ of digital technologies: telecommunication and computers. Computers had earlier gone through a similar path. Their initial application was in research. They eventually ended up changing the way we work and play; they are also the result of convergence of technologies.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs, also popularly known as drones) will be no different. The initial application opportunities will mirror those that are available in the General Aviation industry. General aviation deals with aerial photography, survey, advertisements, crop dusting etc. This is however only the beginning. The great drone revolution has yet to hit us.
Are we adequately prepared for adoption of this technology? The technology arrived with a bang. True, the middle class is awash with ‘toy’ drones, posing a danger to all and sundry. Many will remember a bewildered head of the defence forces ordering down a media drone during Jamhuri day celebrations of 2014. The country was caught flat-footed with this new security threat. A de facto ban was issued, and it became illegal to own or fly a drone for the next three years. Thousands were subsequently impounded at JKIA.
Regulator caught wrong-footed
KCAA, the aviation regulator, quickly abdicated its regulatory role to the Ministry of Defence. The rule-book literally had to be re-written. In Kenya, this resulted in the Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems Regulations, 2017. In these regulations, the requirements for a drone pilot mirror those required in the ground school training for a manned aircraft pilot. They also distinguish themselves by the extremely heavy fines and harsh punishment levied for every infraction. I have not seen any other regulations that are so severe. It is prudent to err on the side of safety and caution and take a conservative approach in aviation. Safety issues cannot be under-stated, and drones are a safety nightmare. However imagination is still needed in dealing with new challenges.
Drone revolution poses challenges
Top among the challenges opened up by drones are concerns about security, safety and privacy. Quadcopters are the biggest culprits. These are the latest evolution in the ever-evolving technologies of UAVs. Their design features four rotors in a rectangular like frame. Many typically carry a camera, or some other payload.
Several concerns have been raised about the danger posed by drones to aircraft. There have been several reported near misses.
However three disturbing recent cases involving drones and aircraft stand out:
- The collision of a recreational drone and a US Army Black Hawk helicopter near Staten Island, New York in September 2017 See: Drone operator blamed for midair collision with Army Blackhawk helicopter
- A collision between a drone and a small commercial aircraft during final descent to Jean Lesage International Airport in Quebec in October 2017 See: Drone hits commercial airliner in Canada, no injuries
- The crash of a Robinson R22 helicopter in Charleston, South Carolina, USA in February 2018. See: Probe after ‘drone made helicopter crash’
New convergence of technologies
UAVs are essentially aircraft with no human being on board (sometimes more accurately called Uninhabited aerial vehicles. Opponents of the term Unmanned argue that this implies that there is no human control. There is human control, only it is not within, but out of the aircraft; hence the term Uninhabited ). These aircraft have been around for a surprisingly long time. The first quadcopter was invented in 1920. We owe their re-emergence to modern developments in battery, mobile, remote control and manufacturing technology. The modern quadcopters are perhaps the closest things to Flying Carpets that have been invented. Their versatility is unlike anything else in aviation.
UAVs is a truly disruptive technology whose effects will probably exceed several times over that which was experienced with mobile phones. A new convergence of technologies involving smartphone technology, robotics and electric propulsion will probably result in the greatest disruption yet. The current regulations assume that all UAVs operate within line of sight under the control of a remote pilot. Yet technology now allows for the design of fully autonomous UAVs with arduino board based autopilots. Some of these can fly autonomous circuits without human involvement. The possibilities are endless. And blanket bans will not be effective. Geo-fencing requirements that are meant to provide a virtual perimeter in the operation of drones are only effective for drones bought in a regulated shop. It is amazingly simple to design and build a capable home-made quadcopter.
Embrace the technology
Kenya needs to come up with a sectoral policy on UAVs. Regulations for UAVs should encourage innovation. Challenges facing Kenya are quite different from those facing the developed countries from which we take all our aviation regulations. Engineering schools in Kenyan universities are still busy designing energy-efficient jikos, a task better left to polytechnics.
Perhaps this is the entry point for modern innovation that will provide employment in the 21st century. Recent reports have lauded Kenya’s progress in Innovation, comparing our position with the heavyweights of the continent, topping continental giants, South Africa and Nigeria. Drone technology should provide the impetus to leapfrog the formal aviation industry with its high technology and safety barriers.