U.K. drone company sets flying record that could be a big boost for autonomy
You probably don’t need us to tell you that drones are going to be huge. Whether it’s deliveries, mapping, surveillance, or myriad other applications, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have the opportunity to be transformative in our lives. But for that to happen they will need to be let off their leash by regulatory authorities — and prove that they can be trusted to be used in a way that doesn’t abuse the faith that we are putting in them.
Lately, it seems that authorities around the world are starting to loosen up. Recently, the U.S. government introduced a new drone experimentation program that loosens certain restrictions on 10 tech giants. Now the U.K. government has awarded SenSat, the country’s largest drone data provider, permission to carry out flights beyond their pilot’s visual line of sight inside complex airspace, which is a major limiting factor in current commercial drone operations. As a result, SenSat this week set a new record, with a fixed-wing drone flying 7.5 miles (12 kilometers) beyond the pilot’s visible line of sight, breaking the country’s existing record by a factor of 10.
While other such flights have taken place on offshore in very remote areas, carrying out one this ambitious in one of the world’s most complex and crowded airspaces is an enormous step forward for drone operations.
“The largest challenge was regulatory rather than technical,” James Dean, founder of SenSat, told Digital Trends. “That is why it is so significant — a lot of the technologies exist in raw format, so being able to be accommodated by a fairly slow-moving regulatory framework, and indeed accelerated, really highlighted the U.K. government’s [focus] on this.”
For the flight, the U.K.’s Civilian Aviation Authority set up a temporary danger zone, barring other aircraft from entering the airspace during the 40 minutes in which the record-breaking flight was carried out.
According to Dean, the main technical challenges of the flight involved maintaining communications links and battery life. Communications remained at 99.8 percent uptime during the flight, thanks to the drone being linked into the 3G cellular network. Since this is the same connection as mobile phones, it provides strong connectivity wherever there is a mobile signal. The drone, meanwhile, had a possible 120 minutes of maximum flight time using its batteries, meaning that the record-breaking flight consumed just one-third of its potential flight time.
“Drones to date have been largely stunted in their impact because there is still a significant regulatory need to have a human supervise the autonomous robot,” Dean continued. “The point in an autonomous robot is to increase machine automation and reduce manual labor. This allows us to do that at over 30 times.”
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