Drone Technology, Present and Future

By Rufus Ballaster and Andrew Firman, Partners for Carter Lemon Camerons LLP

The age of drones has come – even sports coverage would not be the same without them.  (Have you noticed the many drones in picture during the Winter Olympic coverage? We certainly have!)  It is tempting to talk about this as a gimmick more than as a serious aspect of modern business life but that is to miss the point.  We may not realise how much drones are already doing, we may well misjudge the opportunities they open up but we need to start getting serious about what contribution appropriate drones (from nano to macro) could make if used properly now and how much more that might develop in the near future.

‘BlueSkyThinking’ means looking up and seeing various drones but only if you look carefully as most of them will be doing what they need to do unnoticed by humans!

Current drone uses in Construction

The most likely place that PB-Link delegates will have encountered a drone in action thus far would be in construction.  Increasing numbers of surveys are being conducted with aerial footage in still and/or video format.

A drone can (provided the owner of the land and buildings has consented as have any humans who are within a safety distance of the drone when it is operational) get to look up and drone low rise to high rise buildings and send back in real time images of what they see.  This is phenomenally useful.  Detailed inspection becomes possible without need of scaffolding, safety harnessing etc.  The imaging and data collection tools the drone can take need not be limited to standard still and mobile digital photography – heights of land or buildings can be mapped, angle of roof slopes, degree of listing (of leaning towers, say – the UK has plenty of them and there is no need to go to Pisa to use equipment testing the amount by which a building is off ‘true’).  Escape of heat from glazing or cladding can be measured as can emissions from ducts.

One amazing bit of natural history date drones now provide is the dietary habits of whales by hovering and collecting and analysing ‘blow’ when wales surface; if that is possible clearly emissions testing of heating or cooling systems would be a doddle.

So the role of drones in construction is not only to do with pre-development-assessments but it has potential to contribute on a cradle to grave basis.  First high level ‘scouring’ for a suitable site, through details site appraisal, to giving very accurate data to support design, then supporting the development phase itself, troubleshooting at any stage and later monitoring the behaviour of the building or systems during the building’s life.  Demolition scopes of works are now often supported by drone gathered data and images and the process itself can usefully be monitored and recorded from the air.  The reuse of the site for its next ‘incarnation’ will be supported by even better drone technology of the future.

Pace of growth

Twenty years ago, we never heard of drones supporting construction processes.  Ten years ago we heard of trendy people trying to excite us that this was a huge opportunity (despite entry cost).  Today we hear people asking why on earth people are still risking their lives on ladders “to get up and try to see what the problem is”.

That pace of growth is astonishing but the foolish thing to do would be to assume that the pace will slacken off, that the industry is now mature in its use of drones and that whatever can be done has already been established and there might be a few tweaks.

An issue for the whole economy which could have massive impact on construction concerns battery life and load capacity.  If there is to be a drone based delivery system then the law has to change (of which more later) but also the current concept of most drones being multi rotor things which can fit in a sports bag type of holdall and which needs a fresh battery after each ten to thirty minutes of use carrying nothing but a camera (or similar data gathering devices) has to stop and we need to think of the drone as an autonomous vehicle which happens to use airspace as its highway, not roads nor rail nor waterways.

It is conceivable that steels, joists, cladding and hods of bricks (and pretty much any construction material you happen to suggest) could be delivered to the exact spot they are to start to be incorporated into a building by drone – not by road and then crane, fork-lift and/or human.  The loading capacity and flying time ability of such a drone would be beyond what we are seeing regularly in London’s skies now but not beyond what is being tested or in operation in certain other sectors in other parts of the world.

Technological advances in battery storage have been amazing and already broken many comments that “the limit must be close” – think of the range and speed a fully electric road car can now achieve, to the point they are actively marketed as genuinely viable alternatives to internal combustion rather than just for techies and freaks as was the case not so long ago in most car circles!  If the battery can produce more power for longer (and/or be supplemented by battery swapping mid flight – another use for a suitably designed drone!) then the sky really is the limit for adaptation of construction technique to get maximum value from the drone input possible ‘on site’.

Comparison of Construction and other Uses

Construction is at the forefront of commercial use – the entertainment industry is probably the only one to be making even more use of drones currently.  Sports footage as mentioned earlier is a major drone adopter and the action movie even more so.  Crowd shots, walking along street shots, car chases, blah blah all now have some of their filming from remote controlled pilotless flying vehicles.  As a drone can hover, change height, rotate etc with speed and accuracy, filming from that is much easier than having a spider style of strings and pulleys to shift the camera around – as we thought so innovative at rugby stadia not so long ago.

As a first mention of law, however, the film industry can adopt drone footage even more easily than a live sports event can as all the humans in the vicinity are linked to the project by contract so their consent can be obtained relatively easily plus the owner of the land on which the film is being shot will be easy to ascertain and that consent be in place.  If filming a marathon run that will not be the case.  If filming a football or rugby match, the law banning drones from large gatherings will be a real obstacle.

Delivery/freight is the sector most commonly explored and I hope if a talk like this happens at PB-Link 2030 the following comment would be laughed at but delivery drones for post, parcels, grocery and restaurant ‘takeaway’ are really struggling.  The technology is there should people find ways to adopt it but thus far the best examples are not a retail style network but very closed specialist networks often in healthcare.

In Sweden there is a network of drone delivering defibrillators – it is well known both that Scandinavian countries have a relatively low density of population and that the quicker suitable emergency treatment can reach a heart crisis patient the better the prognosis.  Someone has put two and two together to solve the problem of quite how many defibrillators on street corners might be needed by making them capable of rapid delivery without sending a fully fledged piloted helicopter into the air with the cost involved in that process.

In Rwanda, the blood transfusion operates with the benefit of a fixed wing drone fleet operating on a hub and spoke basis to get the right type of blood to the relevant health centre – the drone takes off horizontally, flies to drop destination, its precious payload comes down with its fall broken by a mini-parachute and the drone returns to base and lands stopped by a stretching band much as fighter aircraft come to a halt on aircraft carriers (but at slower speeds with much less mass and no people on board).  There are so many flights in and out of the blood transfusion ‘airport’ that it claims to be the busiest in Rwanda.

The state is often a major user partly as it has special entitlements to operate – so the military and the law enforcement and the health service can all do drone operations which a civilian only business would find impossible due to CAA regulation restrictions.  Some police forces are much more drone enthusiastic than others.  It should surely not surprise us if vehicle licensing checks or toll collection systems adopt drone operated cameras linked to vehicle registration recognition software.  The power of CCTV which is no longer rigidly fixed to one specific wall or pole is a clear advantage in that kind of revenue raising set up.

A Glimpse into the Future

If the delivery drone becomes common (and the driverless taxi, bus, railway coaches, freight lorry, barge etc) then transportation costs will drop and just-in-time delivery become more reliable and despite the fears for job losses there would be job creation too and potentially huge environmental benefits.  Road traffic is currently a major cause of fossil fuel burning for internal combustion engine propulsion.  Drone flight is mostly battery powered electric.  It would be worth creating far more renewable energy electricity generation if we were sure the transportation infrastructure could take that electricity and make 24/7 use of it.

A drone reaching the end of its range (or an electric road vehicle likewise) can have a power delivery while in motion from a drone network and this concept is being promoted tested and may soon become a reality elsewhere in the world.  CAA regulations make it questionable how easily such a network could be implemented here in the UK but regulations can be changed.

As set out above, drone use in the construction industry is widespread but currently to plan and to monitor.  If a drone can take a picture which establishes that a glazed system within a roof is failing, that is good but we are unaware currently of a drone operated system being in place which could fix that leak.  Today it can be identified quickly and accurately – far more quickly and accurately than was the case before drones were used for surveying in the way they are today.  However we could find a system of remote working coming into place where tools held (or at least delivered) by drone are operated by skilled people who are not physically holding those tools.

To use a military comparison, much of the fighting done by USAF sees the ‘pilot’ still in the USA but controlling an unmanned aircraft over a combat zone thousands of miles away.  The ethics and emotional strain of such systems were core themes in a recent film.  If you can fire a missile from an aircraft in that way, why could you not put treatment onto a glazed panel, adjust rubber seals, spray waterproofing, replace broken aspects and so on and so forth with tools and materials on site but manipulated remotely by a skilled workforce with various angles of ‘line of sight’ delivered by cameras held by, yes, drones too!?

The ways in which drones can change our lives is limited by three things:

  • technology
  • law and
  • imagination

Legal Barriers to making that Future a Reality

There is a common misperception that drones are new (multicopter camera bearing toys flown in parks are fairly new but since there has been human-engineered-mechanical-flight there have been things made by humans which fly and have no passengers nor crew) and as a result there ‘is no law’ relating to drones.  This is inaccurate for two reasons.  First there are specific drone laws already in place and secondly the law of things applies to drones as it does to teapots and cricket balls and so on and so forth.

So laws about things which are sold needing to be fit for purpose apply to drone sales.  Laws making those who negligently operate things they control being liable in damages for foreseeable loss caused by that fault apply to drone operators.  Laws about guaranteeing performance and longevity of parts or products apply to drone manufacture.

Drone regulation is a major reason why currently we do not see the delivery by drone of your takeaway tonight being likely to happen any time soon.  The CAA has to regulate airspace to control the risks associated with ‘drone strike’ bringing down an Airbus or similar.  In fact it goes on to regulate far more especially in relation to any form of commercial drone use.  The hobbiest who “gets lucky” as he or she happened to be filming when a royal couple emerged unexpectedly somewhere hand in hand or lip to lip or whatever can show that to friends to prove what an amazing coincidence but the instant the image is sold to a newspaper or other form of media, the CAA is likely to fine the drone operator.  If you make money from your drone use, you need to have prior permission from the CAA and to get that you normally need to prove you have done some safety training and that you will hold suitable insurance.  The hobbiest can fly for fun, but when that hobbiest starts to make money, the exemptions to the safety testing and insurance and so on disappear and an offence is being committed.

Even hobbiests ought to have owner consent to overfly as there is no general exemption from the law of trespass for drones – not even at heights where they would be hard to spot.  Which takes us to more regulation – a drone should be in the line of sight of the operator so if the drone is so high that the landowner is unlikely to spot it so unlikely to realise any cause to object, it is probably breaching other regulations.  Add in the need to be a healthy distance from buildings people or vehicles (save with the consent of the people or the owner of the building etc) and you realise how easy it is to breach the law of drones – meaning the specific regulations which are law and have been passed to regulate drone use.

There are easy guides to this for both hobbiests and commercial users such as the surveyor using a drone as part of his or her work.  These are published and updated and bullet point summarise good practice – bless the CAA for its use of plain English and its desire for compliance rather than breach and punishment.

However some of those regulations must change – a delivery system is not cheaper nor quicker if the device has to be in the line of sight of the person with control of it.  The concept for a commercially viable delivery system is to automate as much as possible but to build safety into that automation.  If the UK wants to be a leader in innovative adoption and development of drone technology such that our engineers and producers build a worldwide reputation and export market, the UK’s own drone regulation needs to be worked on rapidly to balance safety concerns with a reality check.  The first cars on the roads were preceded by a person waving a flag to warn other road users that a car is coming.  That law had to go before we could have motorways helping us get from one end of England to another in hours at speeds 20 times walking speed but still within national speed limits.  So too the more knee jerk “anything could happen if we don’t regulate” rules applying to drone operations in the UK have to go and the core values protecting genuine risk need to be the focus going forward.

The Government has a review which might take steps in this direction.  In our view, it should be encouraged to be radical and to sell to the people that safety is not being compromised because the new regulatory framework must have genuine safety concerns woven into it properly yet enable safely operated artificial intelligence analysis ‘piloting’ to prosper if we are to see drones reach the potential they have to improve our built environment.

NOTE: Rufus and Andrew (with a third co-author, Eleanor Clot) recently published A Practical Guide to Drone Law http://www.lawbriefpublishing.com/product/dronelaw/ and copies of that book can be bought by following that url or by contacting Carter Lemon Camerons LLP as that firm holds some stock immediately available at recommended retail price.