Clockwise from left: Aerovel's Flexrotor is designed to operate over oceans and remote areas; WSU Professor Lav Khot
prepares to fly an octo-copter over a vineyard; an Autel Robotics drone equipped with WiBotic wireless power solutions.
A drone economy could well reshape businesses directly involved in the production or use of UAVs. Commercial real estate services firm CBRE recently issued a report on the impact of technologies including autonomous vehicles on its industry. Driverless trucks, for example, will increase the distance and hours those vehicles can operate, reducing costs. Supply chains will be able to operate with fewer but larger distribution centers, but those warehouses will have to be built to receive and deploy the new generation of autonomous delivery trucks.
The speed with which technologies are being readied for market is also one of the barriers to their adoption, as lawmakers and regulators scramble to keep up and deal with thorny practical issues like safety, liability and traffic management on the ground and in the air (e.g., how do vehicles and aircraft operate in the same space at the same time?), not to mention broader societal issues such as privacy and job gains and losses.
“The technology is going to be ready before the world is ready,” says Paccar President and CEO Ron Armstrong.
Mike Dozier, general manager of Kenworth, a Paccar subsidiary, says many of the technologies that make autonomous trucks possible have been showing up on trucks for years — lane-departure warning systems, drowsy-driver monitoring, even adaptive cruise controls that use GPS data to tell the engine to apply more power when the vehicle is approaching an uphill grade.
The truck is packed with data-generating sensors and equipment, for which costs have been steadily declining, adds Paccar SVP Kyle Quinn. The issue, Quinn points out, has been “how do you manage all the information coming off the sensors and interpret it?”
Answer: creating breakthroughs in image processing and artificial intelligence. In other words, software is starting to catch up with the capabilities of hardware.
It may be some time before drivers are banished from the truck cab, the Paccar brass cautions. Drivers have duties beyond steering, accelerating and braking, such as securing the load and making sure it stays in place. They’re also needed to handle unexpected situations that autonomous systems aren’t sure how to manage.
Still, none of those barriers seem as daunting as what the commercial space business faces, and it’s been able to grow in spite of the challenges. Further, if regulators aren’t moving as fast as many advocates of drones and driver-free vehicles would like, they also aren’t saying, “No way.”
For example, the Federal Aviation Administration issued its Part 107 compendium of rules in mid-2016 to govern use of commercial drones according to weight, speed, height, operator certification and other criteria. While it’s a long list, it does give those interested in the technology’s use some certainty. The FAA has also authorized research projects on flying UAVs beyond the operator’s line of sight, such as the Insitu-BNSF experiment.
The industry itself can do a lot to allay some of the safety fears of regulators and the public, Waters says, by “moving reliability from pretty high with top-of-the-line consumer devices” to commercial units with virtually no potential points of failure, and which have safety devices in place in cases of power loss or collision.
The technology also has the potential to mitigate problems it creates and solve others. Driverless trucks, for example, threaten the jobs of drivers. But the trucking industry has long been dealing with a chronic shortage of drivers; the American Trucking Associations reported the turnover rate at large fleets was 83 percent in the second quarter of 2016. And even as they eliminate jobs in some sectors, drones and other autonomous vehicles could create more in others. The FAA news release on approval of Part 107 says the new rules could help generate more than 100,000 new jobs in the next 10 years.
Regulators and legislators will be under pressure to keep up with the explosion of applications. Forest fires can be monitored closely but safely. Insurance companies can inspect storm damage on homes — and transmit images to the home office — without sending an inspector onto a potentially precarious roof. Kostek, a resident of Seattle’s Green Lake neighborhood, came up with the idea of using drones to monitor the lake’s health. Farmers are already working with autonomous trackers guided by GPS. Underwater drones can inspect boat hulls. A local police department has used aerial drones to document auto accident scenes, allowing officers to reopen roads sooner.
Waters expects the boom to be even bigger in a few years, when companies now seeking funding bring their products to market.
Kostek agrees. “We’re still early, early on as to how these technologies will be applied,” he predicts. “Somewhere, there’s a smart kid playing around with an idea none of us has thought of.”