As 2020 winds to a close I thought it would be a good time to share what I see coming for drones in 2021. More specifically, public safety drone operations, since that is my specialty.
In working on this piece I had a chance to go back and read what I had written in 2014 and it seems to still be spot on.
What We Might See in 2021
More Artificial Intelligence and Autonomous Flight
I fully expect to see more advancements in artificial intelligence and autonomous flight through 2021.
The days are passing quickly to a time when not only will drones and UAS be safer to fly but more flight will take place controlled by computer, rather than a human pushing controller sticks.
I believe we can look at the FAA drone airworthiness applications as a guide to what is coming in this area.
Just looking at one of those applications we can find this, “The UAS operations would rely on high levels of automation and may include multiple UA operated by a single pilot, up to a ratio of 20 UA to 1 pilot.”
It also says, “For some aircraft design requirements imposed by existing airworthiness standards the aircraft must not require exceptional piloting skill or alertness. These rules recognize that pilots have varying levels of ability and attention. In a similar manner, the proposed criteria would require that the durability and reliability flight testing be performed by a pilot with average skill and alertness.”
I would anticipate that as the aircraft become smarter and able to process more information on board to make deconfliction and flight decisions, the need for a skilled pilot will become less and less.
The FAA always hangs someone on the hook for piloting an aircraft so I would not expect the requirement to go away that the flights occur under the supervision of an appropriate Pilot in Command (PIC).
I anticipate that maybe not in 2021, but soon, we should start to see drones that have extended range, flight time, and communication other than by short-range radios.
Pilots will be able to command more than one drone to respond. The drones may be located in various areas around town, but the pilot will be centralized.
A Reasonable Operational Procedure
A reasonable model would be to locate drones in a weather-resistant cabinet on the roof of a police or fire station. When they are in the cabinet, they will refuel or recharge. They will take off and return autonomously to the landing zone cabinet. By placing them at existing stations that have already been located for optimum response, the drones will be able to be serviced, if necessary, and closer to the area of that station.
When an incident is dispatched, a centralized pilot in front of a computer will be able to monitor aircraft in the air that launched autonomously. The dispatch typically comes with a GPS coordinate. The UAS will take off to the incident GPS coordinates and stream live video back to the centralized pilot and responding units.
If you look at how far autonomous vehicles have come in a short period of time it appears logical and certain that autonomous drones are not that far off. In fact, I just purchased a self-driving car.
Look at the progress Skydio has made, with much more to come.
“Teaming artificial intelligence (AI) with pilots is no longer just a matter for science fiction or blockbuster movies. On Tuesday, December 15, 2020, the Air Force successfully flew an AI copilot on a U-2 spy plane in California: the first time AI has controlled a U.S. military system.”
There is no way to sugarcoat this but the drones flying today are unsafe to fly in commercial operations. I’ve gone on and on about this issue but until we have drones that have passed an FAA airworthiness process and certified for flight, we can’t be confident the drones are safe.
In 2021 I expect to see more reports of drones crashing as more uncertified aircraft hit the skies. That’s just a numbers game.
Current drones are falling out of the sky daily. Just look at the reports over here and the forum links on the right side of that site.
Public safety drones will play an important role in future services provided by agencies. But we are in the tricycle stage of safe aircraft development. Drones necessary for long-range flight beyond visual line of sight and over people, should not regularly have observations like “I was flying it for 16 minutes at once when the drone was 30-50 meters above it had the message of “unable to rotate motor please check any object or contact DJI” warning and in a flash before I touch the joystick it fell.”
In 2021, one or more of the UAS applications for airworthiness may be approved and that will be an important critical step in the advancement of the field.
But better safety may not mean smaller drones. Future public safety drones may be required to be bigger to carry more computer power, more complex payloads, redundant safety features, and alternative forms of energy production (diesel or hydrogen).
Personally, I’d rather fly a larger drone for public safety operations and have redundant capabilities like additional motors in case one fails, an integrated parachute system that is designed in the aircraft from clean sheet engineering, and cellular or satellite control of the drone.
Better and Different Training
I can see more professional flight programs developing that will not only train FAA certificated pilots to operate commercial drones but also train the pilots to be better fleet commanders and data processors.
The role of the pilot will become much more about making good choices and interpreting data the drone gathers than pushing sticks up-down-right-left.
A growing need will slowly develop for drone pilots as a profession to oversee operations. Those pilots will have substantial responsibilities and a role in larger flight operations than just for a local department.
I would expect to see county operations or regional operations of drones since the pilots will not need to be located where the physical drone is. This is not a new concept. The military has been doing this for many years.
However, I’m not confident that we will need pilots to be specialists in things like aerial mapping. Drones are on the way that will be able to automatically fly a designated area and build a 3D map in real-time and even make it available as it is being stitched together in flight.
Better Maintenance Options
I’m hoping the FAA will allow certificated FAA mechanics to work on the more complex drones to come. Having a local FAA regulated Airframe & Power Plant (A&P) mechanic or an FAA mechanic certificated for Inspection Authorization (IA) would be a tremendous benefit.
But 2021 Will Be a Transition Year
As we move from the grassroots where we started to a different future there will be a technology and skills transition.
With the rollout of new and more complex aircraft, pilots that don’t keep up with technology will be gradually left behind.
More complex operations are going to come with the use of the more advanced UAS. Things like Remote ID or ADS-B will put more responsibility on pilots to fly within the regulations since there will be a data trail of flights that will be publicly accessible.
The year 2021 will be the start of the shift towards new certified airworthy technology and the smaller drones that are owned by departments today will become obsolete or non-compliant in just a few years. They just won’t be able to conduct the missions that the next generation of certified UAS will be able to accomplish.
It’s time to look a step ahead and not just at the marketing out for aircraft today.