Drones technology has the potential to solve many problems that require expensive solutions. Therefore it is a no brainer that there are companies looking for innovative solutions to make use of such technology. Depending on the line of business it can help them reduce cost, make the process more efficient or improve the customer experience.
However for every solution there is always a new set of problems that needs to be fixed. If the solution outweighs the problems then its worth spending time and effort on it. Otherwise large scale adoption will be impossible to reach without improvement. To explore the idea further I interviewed Ir. J.A. Melkert, the director of Education at Aerospace Department Delft University of Technology. He also serves as a lecturer at the university and has published numerous research papers. Due to his academic contribution he is respected around the world and therefore perfect candidate for this interview.
Do you think using drones for travelling or transporting packages is feasible?
“Well, I think you have to look into feasibility two different ways. One way is the technical feasibility, and I think technically this is feasible. We have already seen the first air taxis for people sitting inside, and we have already seen the first delivery of packages with drugs. So technically, feasibility not an issue. But the practical implementation, I expect will stop this to a large extent. And I think there are two main reasons for this. First of all, is the nuisance they will create. I live in the Rotterdam city, which is a big city, and my first neighbor that leaves in the morning to go to work is roughly leaving at 05:00 in the morning. I don’t want to have a buzzing drone in my city at 05:00 in the morning because my neighbors start leaving. I don’t want that and I don’t think many people will want that. Furthermore, I think there is a safety issue in the sense of we first need to answer the safety question. And the big safety question is how often do we think it’s acceptable that such a machine crashes downtown, a busy city? And I think the answer to that question is zero times.”
“We do not accept that. And that’s also already acknowledged by the European Aviation Safety Agency Arson. And they have said drones need to comply with the same safety standards as passenger aircraft, not general aviation aircraft, but passenger aircraft. And there’s a very nice example. There was a helicopter service in the 1970s between the harbor of New York and the inner city because that was possible, technically feasible. And then at a certain day one of these helicopters crashed downtown New York, more or less, rotor blades flying multiple blocks away. And that was case over. Not long after that, the company went bankrupt. This is not acceptable from a safety point of view. So I think the places where this will happen is where you have more space, where the nuisance is less, where you have more space to make emergency landings. But if you retook cities, cities as we know them, busy cities, it’s not possible, I think will not happen.”
“Yeah, technically that will be feasible. But the question is, do we want to accept the nuisance it creates coming to your doorstep if it happens once? Okay. But if I see how many packages are now being delivered because of the Corona pandemic, because people shop online, I think I will be very quickly annoyed. And then you have the still a technical challenge because automated autonomous means that you have to have a level five autonomy. You really have to be able to rely on that, and that becomes a reliability question. What is the chance that you can 100% predict the future, everything that the drone will encounter, for instance, what happens if it’s being attacked by birds in Rotterdam, in Harbor City? A lot of Seagulls, and they are pretty aggressive.”
What will be the role of the drones in future cities?
” The role of the drones in future cities will be minimal”
Do you think there’s some other application?
“Yeah, well, an ambulance helicopter in a city is a tricky thing. I’ve seen this happening since I live in a large city. I’ve seen it a couple of times. It’s really tricky to find a landing spot. The question is whether you want to do this unmanned or automatic. I think that’s going to be a tricky thing. But these kind of niche applications might be the ones that will be there for emergency delivery of medical supply, but really in busy cities, I think we don’t have the space for that. Okay”
Drones as Ambulance?
Using drones in emergency services is one of the promising applications. TuDelft has also explored this area since it can prove to be monumental in saving lives when time is of the essence. The drones does not have to navigate through the traffic and can land is tighter spaces compared to helicopter.
The project ambulance drone focuses on providing essential toolbox in case of an emergency. First delivering Automated Defibrillator (AED) to patients who suffered cardiac arrest. Cardiac arrest is a medical emergency and only 8% survive because it is impossible for medical team to reach the person under ten minutes.
The second part of the interview focuses on the potential technical issues for the drones.
Is battery life of drones an issue?
“The batteries will definitely improve. It improves a couple of percent every year. There is other ways of propelling drones, you could think of hydrogen fuel cell propulsion or internal combustion of you run into range or endurance issue.”
Can the hydrogen fuel cell propulsion be used on the drones?
“The aerospace center NLR already has hydrogen powered drones, so technically its not a problem. However the question is, is it acceptable in the sense that hydrogen is very flammable. If a drone crashes do we accept that it may cause a loss of life or people getting hurt. I think the answer would be No, we will not accept that. “
What other issues will this technology have to face?
“Apart from safety security, you will have the so called no fly zones. If you look in the city of The Hague. That’s where the King lives. The area where the King lives is a no fly zone. No one can fly there, not even an ambulance, helicopters. There will be military objects which will be no fly zones. Government buildings might probably be no fly zone. So at that point it will become a patchwork. And then suppose maybe another example which shows why it is not going to be feasible. Suppose there’s an important soccer match. Suppose Bayern Munich is playing the Champions League final in the Alliance Arena. In Munich, the Stadium has 80,000 seats. Suppose now that roughly five, maybe 10% of the people are going to be rich enough to buy a personal drone. Just imagine that at that specific moment there will be 80,000 seats to be filled, 10% going by drone. There will be 8000 drones in that area.”
“There’s a lot of technical solutions for that. So technical feasibility will probably not be the issue, but pure for nuisance safety overcrowded of the airspace. I think that will be the show stopper there. I think it will be there, but it will be a niche product, limited use.”
“And then we have the Privacy issue. Are we sure that these drones can do this without any camera? I don’t think so, because you need vision based systems, and when there’s cameras on board, you can also spy into people’s houses or you can look at the neighborhood sun bathing in the backyard. And he or she may not like that because that could be filmed, that could be placed on the Internet.”
Is it ok for the government to use the drones for security purpose?
“Yes, but the police is a government institution. They can by law got permission because they also now look into cities. For instance, very nice example is they have helicopters. And if it has snow in the country, you can just over fly the city and see where the snow melts on the roofs. If you see a row of houses with snow on the roofs and one house, which is no snow, there’s something wrong there. And it’s very likely that there’s going to be people growing weeds.”