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Preparing for the Drone Invasion

7 september 2017

Drones

The message from the first day at the first FAI International Drones Conference could not have been clearer: The drones are coming, and they are coming fast. Not only that, they are arriving en masse and will affect all air-users within a decade if not well before.

In a keynote presentation to an audience of 200 at the Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), Alain Siebert, chief economist at the Single European Sky ATM Research Programme (SESAR) said there will be an estimated 7.4 million drones in operation in the skies above Europe within two decades. Some 400,000 will be commercial, with 7m consumer drones.

Siebert set out a vision for a new type of airspace developed by SESAR called U-Space. U-Space will enable highly complex automated drone operations in all environments, including cities. Drones will operate autonomously, as fleets and without one-to-one pilots.

“We need to build the case that robots are safer than humans,” he said. “Practically speaking, by 2019, we will have the first set of services in operation [at a European level].”

Of existing air users, including air sports pilots, he said, “Don’t be scared, this is an opportunity.”

Earlier in the day the conference heard from numerous real-life examples of drone technology already in action.

Simon Johnson from the EPFL Innovation Park gave an overview of Switzerland’s Drone industry, declaring, “fundamentally, Switzerland is a drone nation.” He outlined the many different ways companies in Switzerland are working in drones, from mapping and surveying to harvesting wind energy. Drones are, “A next generation Swiss Aerospace Industry,” he said.

Wayne Lording from the Institute for Drone Technology had travelled from Australia to give a talk on how drones are revolutionising farming in that country. “I use multi-spectral cameras to survey my property,” he explained. “With drones it is so easy. Five years ago you would have to spend $50,000 to get a satellite image, now with a drone you get that information in five minutes. Multi-spectral on drones is just a phenomenal tool for farmers.”

He added: “I’ll be jumping with joy when a drone can lift up a hay bale and deliver it. That will be fantastic.”

Dr John Langford, CEO of Aurora Flight Sciences, explained how his company was working with Uber to develop an autonomous taxi drone that could take off and land vertically in urban areas. “In less than two years the number of drone pilots has far surpassed the number of pilots. This is disruptive innovation,” he said. “Uber aims to have demonstrations of this [technology] by 2020.”

Other speakers described how drones are now regularly delivering blood samples between two hospitals in Switzerland (Die Post | La Poste | La Posta | Swiss Post); how they are used in making 3D maps of car crashes, completing in 15 minutes what used to take several hours (Pix4D); and how they are being used to deliver snake anti-venom 60km to villages in Amazonian Peru (WeRobotics).

The FAI International Drones Conference and Expo is being held as part of EPFL Drone Days 2017, a three-day discovery showcase about the world of Drones and Drone technology. The venue, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, is a research institute and a proven centre for excellence in robotics research and innovation.

Find out more at www.fai-dronesconference.org

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