It sounds like a scene from “The Jetsons” with people zipping around from place to place in aerocars that also deliver packages and pizza.
However, the future of driverless taxis and delivery drones flying through the skies is closer than many people may think.
The first Chinese-made ferry for individual passengers is scheduled to fly this month in Dubai. In the spring, drones were racing at speeds up to 90 mph at a course in Fitchburg during a championship event. And enthusiasts are flying toy drones in backyards all over.
The word “drones” typically conjures images of large unmanned aircraft used by the military or small “toys” used for recreation. But according to Marlboro resident Waseem H. Naqvi, president of the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International for New England, armies of delivery drones are on the horizon for use by companies like Amazon, Google, UPS and Uber.
AUVSI is all-volunteer, with about 350 members, and focuses on promoting the use of drone technology while looking at the societal implications.
“All of a sudden this new technology is becoming available and moving over to the commercial world,” Mr. Naqvi said. “It is moving so fast that the regulators can’t deal with it.”
The Federal Aviation Administration is charged with regulating the skies, with the possibility of tens of thousands of drones eventually flying overhead, with each company having its own control system. That is far from the control the FAA has over manned aircraft, using actual people, air traffic controllers, keeping track of about 12 to 15 planes each from the runway through take-off and during flight to landing.
Drone technology isn’t new, said Mr. Naqvi, the technology director for transportation business for Raytheon. Mr. Naqvi creates air traffic management systems for long-radar airports, which now must be able to detect drones – somewhat challenging because drones can be very small comparatively and usually fly lower and slower, he said. With “sense and avoid” capabilities built into the radar that tells controllers where drones are, the technology keeps planes and drones apart from one another by building “dynamic projection zones” based on the velocity of the drones and other factors, he explained.
Drone technology started with recreational flying of radio-controlled vehicles like planes and helicopters. As the technology advanced and the vehicles evolved into what people think of as drones, with one set of rotors allowing for vertical take-off and another set propelling the craft that didn’t require a controller, the commercial world saw the potential, Mr. Naqvi said. The development of drones powered electronically, which reduces noise greatly, gave the industry another boost, he said.
“Now people were flying for a purpose,” he said.
Organizations like news companies stepped up to use drones to capture footage, he said, and other industries started using drones to carry out dull, dangerous or dirty jobs, including videography for real estate, movie-making and news purposes; precision agriculture using drones outfitted with multi-spectral sensors; and inspection of bridges, cell towers and pipelines.
Drones used by the military can be small or large, Mr. Naqvi said, with the large ones flying at altitude of around 60,000 feet.
Under FAA rules, drones used commercially must weigh less than 55 pounds, can fly up to 400 feet altitude, he said, and must fly less than 100 miles per hour. Personal racing drones go faster.
“It’s all about staying in the air,” Mr. Naqvi said. “The faster you go, the less time you can spend in the air. Big drones such as the RQ-4 Global Hawk have a wingspan of 131 feet, and the MQ-9 Reaper, 66 feet. These fly in controlled airspace and are equipped for instrument flight rules.”
The FAA used to grant exemptions for commercial purposes, he said. However, in August, it established rules to regulate use of commercial drones.
“The FAA owns the airspace 1 inch above the blades of grass and said you can start to fly as long as you adhere to certain rules,” he said. “They said for recreational use, the same rules don’t apply to you because you’re not making any money from it.”
FAA “Part 107” registration allows users to obtain a remote pilot license to fly drones.
“The problem is, the FAA is behind the eight ball on this,” Mr. Naqvi said. “The rules are not clear and states are taking it on themselves to create their own legislation. It is like a car. When you drive your car from Massachusetts to Rhode Island, you don’t want to have a different set of rules. That is what is happening in the drone world.”
New regulations under Part 107 also require the controller/pilot to be in visual line of sight of the aircraft, which must stay 400 feet and not fly over people, making it tough for Amazon and other commercial deliverers to move forward just yet, he said. They can fly in specific areas, but are prohibited within 5 miles of an airport without waivers or specific permission.
“Amazon is a leader in terms of where we are going with this,” Mr. Naqvi said. “They made the investment and started the commercial industry, but the FAA is way behind in terms of regulations. The FAA said, ‘If you want to fly in our airspace, you have to look like everything else. You have to see everyone else and avoid them.’ Google and NASA had done a lot of work in this area with traffic management and how to keep these drones flying where they should be flying and how to prevent collisions. There are so many issues and the policy implications are huge.”
For example, how many aircraft can fly and what do the flying corridors look like? Rule 107 limits it to a single aircraft, Mr. Naqvi said, in daylight.
“Amazon doesn’t want to fly one aircraft; they have to fly 30,000,” he said. “That has to be worked out. From our organization’s perspective, we advocate for the use of the technology, but at the same time, we understand it has huge societal impacts. But that doesn’t mean it is ready for prime time today. Amazon is working out the kinks and working on basic machines, but the bigger issues of how it will be controlled is still a ways away. The commercial sector is pushing it and spending exorbitant amounts funding this. I think it will happen faster than most people think.”
Keith P. Aubin, 33, of Lunenburg, is president of the Wachusett RC Flyers, based in Sterling, and also uses drones in his work as a geographical information systems manager for a renewable energy company in Andover.
His company uses drones to inspect wind turbine blades, he said.
“In the past, inspections were done from the ground with binoculars or a zoom camera, or we would lower down someone on a rope from a crane or they would crawl up into the turbine and get lowered down,” Mr. Aubin said. “We would rotate the blade and they would inspect the next one down. It was quite time consuming, dangerous and expensive.”
His company also uses drones for surveying work and drones that are equipped with thermal sensors to inspect solar panels to detect hot spots on the panels that show up as a defect because they are not absorbing energy, he said.
When he started working at the company two years ago, they weren’t using any drones, he said.
“The biggest reason for such an increase in the use is when the FAA changed the regulations around commercial use,” Mr. Aubin said. “The biggest limiting factor was that you had to have a pilot’s license, but now you can get a remote pilot’s license, which is much easier to get. It’s like a driver’s license exam you take at an FAA testing center, with a 60-question multiple choice exam, and then you’re good to go. There are no practical requirements.”
Several key provisions in the new regulations affect services like Amazon, he said. The biggest one is that the operator must maintain a visual line of sight at all times.
“It’s hard to deliver a package to a house if they can only do it if they can see it,” he said. “It makes a lot of sense. It is a way to integrate drones into the national airspace system. The biggest concern is public safety. They don’t want package delivery drones crashing with other aircraft or in someone’s yard.”
Another limiting provision for delivery services is that they are not allowed to fly over people without permission or the people being involved with what they are doing.
“Equipment failures can happen,” he said. “If you are over a crowd of people, especially an Amazon-sized delivery drone, it can be quite dangerous.”
However, all the provisions can be waived if a company can demonstrate to the FAA that it can maintain safety and there is an inherent public benefit. The first few companies that received waivers used drones for inspecting transmission lines, he said. They are also used in public safety for search and rescue, he said, and documenting crime and accident scenes from above, with a 360-degree view, to create a 3-D representation.
The biggest predicted use, however – around 80 percent of future drone use for commercial purposes – is for agriculture, he said, for crop management plans. Drones equipped with multi-spectral cameras can evaluate the health of crops and identify portions of fields that are underperforming, allowing people to apply pesticides or fertilizers in a targeted manner to save farmers money and increase crop yields.
“Big farms were doing that with manned aircraft on a limited basis, but doing it with drones that cost a few thousand dollars opens up more possibilities,” Mr. Aubin said.
Though the drone world is male dominated, mainly by people in their 30s because of the expense, he said, his group is trying to encourage kids to get involved “as soon as they are old enough to hold a remote.”
“We encourage kids to join the club,” he said. “It is free for youth and $75 for adults. We provide mentorship insurance against injuries or damage. There is a risk associated with that and it is good to be covered.”
The AUVSI educational site, http://knowbeforeyoufly.org, contains more information about flying a drone.