There has been a lot of news lately on the development of drones. Those of us in the industry are well aware of their successful application for military programs, but there now seems to be a huge push for drones in the commercial world. These articles have had me thinking back to my days at Ryerson University where I led a team of students in an international design competition sponsored by the SAE (which today is known as SAE Aero Design). This competition probably didn’t receive much fanfare then, but it has been extremely influential throughout my life. I continue to draw upon the lessons and experience gained there in my own work today, such as working on successfully gaining the AS9100 certification in my present position with Aversan. I expect to continue to draw upon these experiences well into my golden years.
The Wonder Years
This competition was all about designing, constructing and flying a remote-piloted aircraft with a fixed engine, designed to carry a fixed-size but variable-weight payload (cargo). The school that carried the heaviest payload won the flight portion of the competition and bragging rights for the next year! In fact, I was fortunate enough to have led our team to victory in 1992 carrying a payload of 23 lbs with an engine rated to a maximum of only 6 lbf! Essentially, it was a “drone” before drones were popular.
The competition was split into two major components: design, which had to be presented to a panel of seasoned Engineers (our peers); and flight, done in full sight of all the competitors. It was incredible! We had to consider everything: wing design, airframe, propulsion, control systems, payload size, access to the payload, aerodynamics, not to mention project and time management skills needed to coordinate this during our heavy curriculums. However, there was one thing that we didn’t consider – safety!
Safety is a crucial element of the design of any aircraft, whether carrying passengers or not. Companies like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and others know safety inside out, demonstrated in their rigorous application of RTCA’s DO-178 and DO-254, SW and HW considerations in airborne systems and equipment certification. I’m confident, based on their track record, that they will design drones that we can trust. What concerns me are start-ups or major companies like UPS or Jeff Bezos’ Amazon who have fantastic and grand ideas (Amazon PrimeAir), but no practical experience with the design and development of safety-critical systems. Certainly, they can hire experts, but safety needs to be inherent throughout the system. By this I mean that everyone involved in its design (from sketching it out on napkins through to final implementation by the end-user) needs to eat, drink and sleep safety. What were to happen if there was a malfunction on the drone? Perhaps a sudden loss of power, controls or telemetry. Its autonomous systems could go out of calibration. It could collide with power lines, trees, vehicles or even other drones. If Jeff’s dream of having thousands of small drones delivering Amazon packages is to become reality, the real risk of injury or damage to property needs to be a main requirement of the design. Safety-critical thinking throughout the design will lead to safer vehicles interacting with the public.
Simple Design, Complex Risks
Drones can be incredibly simple systems. A visit to a local hardware store in the morning and I could return to my garage with all the tools and raw materials needed to build a crude drone from scratch. A second side trip to hobby shop in town and I could have the engine, servos, wiring and remote to be able to control and pilot the drone. In fact, I could build a drone and have it flying all within a single weekend.
Commercial companies are in a rush to successfully implement drones into their businesses and I’m concerned that shortcuts are being taken in order to be first to market. Indeed, the US Congress has ordered the FAA to come up with a plan for the “safe integration” of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) by September 30, 2015. Regulatory authorities like Transport Canada, the FAA and EASA, are stepping up to put in place regulations that ensures public safety before this happens. FAA Administrator, Michael Huerta, was quoted recently as saying “This industry (UAS) is growing exponentially, and we are working hard to make sure it does so safely.” Model aircraft and drones currently fall under the category of experimental aircraft which means that they can be flown uncertified and by unlicensed pilots as long as they are not used for commercial purposes. Under the current rules, the FAA has issued several cease and desist orders for companies using drones, particularly for filming applications. However, these have been overturned by an NTSB judge (i.e. The Pirker Decision) because the FAA had declared a regulation without having a public notice-and-comment period. The FAA has appealed this decision. None of this fills me with confidence.
Is the future paved with drone intentions? I believe it will be … eventually. However, I advise caution moving forward.