The Unmanned Systems Asia industry gathering in Singapore earlier this month saw a range of industry players gather to discuss the opportunities and challenges of integrating unmanned air systems (UAS) into commercial applications and airspace. A major thrust of the show was also Urban Air Mobility (UAM), with industry players and top regulators painting a picture of what the future portends.
The show was held in conjunction with the biennial Rotorcraft Asia event for the civilian helicopter market, but there was a blurring of the line between the two industries. While the likes of Airbus, Bell and Sikorsky discussed opportunities for conventional rotorcraft, the buzz was much greater around UAM and unmanned systems. While many challenges need to be overcome, it is clear that the sky will be a very different place 10 and 20 years from now. The event produced four key takeaways.
Representatives from a diverse group of backgrounds discussed the tremendous potential of UAS applications with real-life examples. Representatives from Ipsos Business Consulting, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) of Singapore, and Periculum Labs discussed the economic case for autonomous vehicles.
The LTA is tasked with keeping Singapore's buses, cars and trains moving smoothly. One application that it has found for UAS is tunnel inspection. Remotely piloted vehicles allow this work to be done much more efficiently, requiring just a single trained operator.
Challenges include poor lighting in gloomy train tunnels, operating in GPS-denied environments, battery life, dust, and magnetic interference. The LTA is working with industry on how best to address these challenges. Additional applications include 3D mapping of outdoor and indoor locations, bridge inspections, and monitoring road traffic.
Ipsos sees drones having the greatest impact not in cities, but in the countryside, where they can improve farming efficiency. Using UAS to spray crops, for example, saves between 20% and 60% of chemicals compared with manual spraying and reduces human exposure. Other applications include seeding and crop monitoring.
As with the LTA, Ipsos sees challenges to broader use. These include flight time, payload, affordability, suitable crop science products, drift control, and a lack of agricultural drone pilots. On the pilot issue, being a high-end drone operator could attract younger people to a job in the countryside as opposed to living in the city.
Ipsos also sees regulation as an issue. Key areas that need to be addressed include pilot licensing, beyond visual line-of-sight (BVLOS) operations, safety, insurance, information ownership and autonomy.
Japan and the USA have been the most active at applying unmanned technology to agriculture. China also has a subsidy scheme for agricultural UAS.
Perhaps the greatest challenge facing the higher uptake of drones in the public domain is scalability. Periculum Labs argues that it is essential to get humans "off the loop" through greater use of autonomy, allowing a single operator to operate dozens of vehicles simultaneously.
Existing regulations require one pilot for one drone for missions within visual line of sight, while for some BVLOS missions up to four people can be involved, such as a pilot, mission manager, a payload expert and a safety expert.
"This is obviously not economically feasible," says Periculum.
One challenge with traditional machine learning for artificial intelligence is that while a computer can learn to perform a specific task very well, there can be a lack of clarity about precisely how it arrives at certain decisions. This is a significant drawback from a regulatory standpoint, because regulators want full transparency on exactly how automated systems reach certain actions.
The company's RealFlight technology stands to equip unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) with higher order reasoning, yet provides a detailed map of how, exactly, a decision will be made when the system is operating autonomously. This could reduce the need for human intervention and for remotely piloted operations to be scaled up significantly, ultimately allowing one operator to manage a fleet of assets, with the option to intervene if necessary.
UNMAMMED TRAFFIC MANAGEMENT
Perhaps the foremost enabler of UAS operations in the urban environment will be UAV Traffic Management (UTM). A panel with representatives from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Garuda Robotics, and Singapore's Nova Systems-led UTM Consortium explored this crucial topic.
The FAA has a long-term integration strategy, mapping remotely piloted operations from low-risk, isolated work all the way to a full UAS integration into the airspace. Key elements to building this foundation will be various certifications around drone operations, including regulations over unmanned flight over people, flight restrictions and the USA's Remote ID system for UAS identification, as well as the consistent applications of rules across airspace.
The FAA has found that an incremental approach works best, as opposed to all-inclusive regulatory solutions, and that drone integration must be both modular and scalable. In addition, integration will require careful planning and prioritisation of users, and security issues must be addressed.
The Singapore UTM Consortium outlined the challenges facing drones operating in Singapore. Maintaining communications with UAS will be a challenge in 360˚ environment. Another major challenge will be wind and weather. Small unmanned vehicles are highly susceptible to gusts of winds, making their safe integration a challenge.
A panel of leading world regulators comprising Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) director-general Kevin Shum, European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) executive-director Patrick Ky and FAA acting administrator Daniel Elwell recognises the clear potential of small unmanned systems and UAM.
All three underline that safety is the primary concern. Still, they stressed that significant progress is being made in the regulatory enivronment to accommodate new and innovative uses of unmanned systems.
Shum acknowledges that unmanned systems can bring great productivity gains in Singapore, but that the country's highly developed nature and busy skies present special challenges.
He notes that Singapore sees UAS as improving mobility, productivity, and service delivery. The country is working with several companies, including Airbus, to develop best practice in the remotely piloted space. Airbus's Skyways initiative is exploring drone-based package delivery at the National University of Singapore.
He describes a "risk-based" approach to BVLOS drone operations. Under this framework, use cases and trials are assessed against the risk potential. In addition, Singapore has set aside clearly defined geographic areas for UAS testing, including an office park and a maritime location.
Ky also described a "risk-based, operation-centric" approach for Europe. This will see UAVs grouped into three categories: open, specific and certificated.
Open-category UAS rely on visual line of sight, are less than 25kg (55lb) and operate below 390ft. These require no pre-approval and are for use by the general public and photographers. Specific – or increased risk-category UAS need to be authorised. They can perform BVLOS operations such as transport and inspections.
The certificated category is for aircraft deemed to have as high a risk as manned aviation, such as air taxis and unmanned vehicles that deliver packages over people.
Elwell reiterated the safety theme and highlighted the diversity of uses unmanned systems have been deployed on in the USA.
On the outlook for flying taxis, however, he forecasts that it might take longer than the bullish estimates of the 2020s made by industry players. He also expects that many of the UAM concepts proposed will never make it to the stage of receiving a type certificate.
OUTLOOK FOR AIR TAXIS
A panel of representatives from Airbus, Bell, EmbraerX, and Volocopter shared a bright future for UAM in cities.
One factor that will drive demand for the technology is the growing number of people living in cities, which will increase pressure on existing transport infrastructure.
Developing flying vehicles suitable for use within cities, however, is only one challenge to the development of air taxi systems.
Other major hurdles include infrastructure, traffic management, and even the business model under which air taxi operations are operated. Another is manufacturing. Should the market for air taxis take off, the volumes required will fundamentally change how aircraft production is done.
The panellists, however, are relatively optimistic about the regulatory environment. While regulations vary widely between countries in areas such as flight clearances, generally the world's watchdogs understand the potential for UAM and are engaged in the process of how to help a new industry develop.
All panellists underline the notion that safety is, by far, the primary consideration as the UAM industry develops.
As for the issue of autonomy, public acceptance of this should grow, possibly ushering in autonomous UAMs in the late 2020s or early 2030s.