The future for drones is further than the eye can see

Mike Kehoe, Principal ITS Engineer
23 April 2018
image of a drone in flight in a field, with two Amey employees standing by a van.
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Not long ago, the idea of self-driving vehicles was the domain of science fiction. Now sidewalk delivery robots and autonomous cars are science fact. As the capabilities of drones like AmeyVTOL’s Flying Wing expand exponentially, how do we help society keep up? Principal ITS Engineer Mike Kehoe mulls it over.

Technology is developing at a rate not seen since the industrial revolution and, for some, it’s a bit scary. For every clarion call to embrace it more, there is another voice urging caution and restraint.

Caution is certainly necessary. The regulatory and societal protections we rely on, and which evolved over decades of relative stability, need to keep up the pace to stay effective.

Addressing regulation the right way

As technology becomes more ubiquitous and powerful, authorities are being rightly challenged over its safe use in the public space – whether it’s self-driving vehicles on public roads, or the influence of ‘big data’ in our democratic processes.

It’s in all our interests that regulators and legislators make the right decisions to manage the disruptive impacts of technology without restricting its immeasurable promise. And this is something where industry and tech developers can play a key role.

As joint developers with VTOL Technologies of one of the UK’s most advanced drones, The Flying Wing, we are actively pushing at the frontiers of regulation and the comfort zones of stakeholders to help us realise its potential.

Unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology could soon perform critical services from transporting urgent medical supplies to bridge inspection and repair, with benefits for productivity, transport congestion and the environment.

A safer way to survey

The Flying Wing’s ability to deliver precise geospacial survey data in real time at distances of up to 100km makes it safer, quicker and easier to survey and assess vital civil infrastructure and could transform the field of asset management.

Plus, every time a fully-equipped drone is sent into a tunnel, gaseous atmosphere, high-level structure or the embankment of a live rail or road network, someone is removed from risk.

'Line of sight' is the key

But right now, advanced UAVs like AmeyVTOL’s are affected by the same rules which apply to the drones you or I could buy on a petrol station forecourt. Specifically, the rules limiting their use to within the line of sight of whoever is operating it.

Overcoming natural safety concerns about drone operations, especially near aviation sites or other hazardous environments, means getting consensus from a broad section of stakeholders.

From a regulatory point of view, licensing drones to operate beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) is the Rubicon this technology needs to cross.

Through our work developing concepts for our clients we are already liaising directly with the regulator the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). Specifically, we are looking at the necessary processes and regulatory requirements for using advanced BVLOS drones like AmeyVTOL’s to manage incidents and last mile delivery on smart motorways.

The separate but linked challenge of getting buy-in from stakeholders is being tackled head on in cities across the UK by the Flying High Challenge; a project led by innovation foundation Nesta and the Government’s innovation agency Innovate UK.

Exciting project in the West Midlands

Amey is one of the Flying High partners in the West Midlands and we will be working with city leaders, regulators, public services and other businesses over the next few months to look at the potential for drones and how they could be integrated safely and sustainably into communities.

By taking account of real-world conditions and using live demonstrations, this exciting project is exactly how we will start to build a consensus as a society.

Only by understanding stakeholders’ aspirations, educating them to the possibilities and building the necessary assurances will we be able to navigate this technology through the complexities of issues like the law, regulations, safety and privacy.


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