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Ready for takeoff

 
Drones still have a long way to go before they become a common sight in the skies above us. But their day is coming, and Danish firms are working to make sure they are at the forefront of a new industry

Hans Christian Andersen Airport is not a busy place. Situated 10 minutes by car from the centre of Odense, Denmark’s third largest city, and surrounded by farmland, the single-runway facility has only a handful of scheduled flights each week during the summer.

During the winter, it has none. “Actually, they were going to close it,” says Michael Larsen, the head of UAS Danmark, an organisation that promotes the development of unmanned aircraft.

But instead of closing the airport, they – Odense Council and North Funen Council – didn’t. They had an idea. Realising the secluded location and lack of traffic made the airport an ideal place to test unmanned aircraft, in 2012 they set up Denmark’s first test centre for drones (or ‘unmanned areal systems’ or ‘unmanned areal vehicles’, depending on how sensitive people are about the baggage the term ‘drone’ brings with it).

The drones that fly here – or anywhere in Denmark – aren’t the killing machines of modern warfare. They are, in fact, mundane. Boring even, carrying out a wide range of practical tasks that can be done more easily or efficiently by calling in a little help from above.

Long overshadowed by their military big brothers, civilian drones have slowly come into their own. UAS Denmark, which manages the test centre, has identified four applications – agriculture, first response, maritime services and “other research” purposes – in which Denmark has the chance to use its existing know-how to develop export technologies.

Doing so will require test flights, and UAS Denmark is counting on Hans Christian Andersen Airport becoming something of a Silicon Valley for the Danish drone industry. Interest, Larsen says, is growing, and one firm – Integra – has already set up shop at the airport.

Drones are still heavily restricted in Denmark, and test flights in Odense are not yet a daily occurrence. But on the day we visit, we meet Søren Møller Dath.

Dath wants to give his drone a few final test flights before completing his master’s project in robotics at the University of Southern Denmark (SDU) in Odense.

His idea is that, when equipped with the correct sensors, a drone can be used by farmers to locate precisely where weeds are. Using GPS coordinates transmitted by the drone, the farmer can then spray pesticides in a far smaller area. Someday, he even envisions the data being transmitted to small robots on the ground that can spray individual weeds.

For the economically minded, that means saving money. For the environmentally minded, that means fewer chemicals being sprayed near food or running off into the soil.

The practically minded, however, would point out that today’s test flights revealed how far drones still need to go before they can be considered as reliable as tractors or lorries or mobile phones or any other technology we’ve accepted as a natural part of modern life.

Today’s big problem: it’s windy. The control tower tells us over the walkie-talkie that gusts are up to 15 m/s (54 km/h). That’s enough to start making you feel dizzy after ten minutes on the tarmac, but otherwise it’s easily bearable on this warm spring day.

But the drone – an octo-copter model – “doesn’t like it,” Dath says. He doesn’t like it either. Doesn’t like the way the drone is struggling to maintain a constant position five metres off the ground. Doesn’t like the way its eight motors are straining. Doesn’t like what will happen if it crashes to the grass below.

“It’ll stay in place, but this is about as much wind as it can take,” he says. He’s got his hands on a handset similar to the kind you would use to operate a standard remote control airplane, but points out it’s just in case. The drone, he says, holds its height and location based on the GPS coordinates he programmed before take-off.

If he were to send it flying around the airport, it would be programmed to follow a set path, again based on GPS coordinates.

Danger: robots flying overhead

The airport is deserted. So if the drone does crash or fly out of control, there’s little danger of any serious damage. Mostly, Dath is worried about the drone hitting the ground too hard and breaking.

That would set him (and his university) back about 20,000 kroner, along with the dozens of hours it took him to assemble the drone. (He says he could have saved the time and just bought an off-the-shelf model, but that would have cost more than twice as much. He would also have lost the experience of tinkering with it.)

But imagine if the airport were busier, or if it were flying over a town or a packed football stadium. Then, damage would be measured not in kroner, but perhaps in stitches or broken bones. Or, worse, human lives.

Even though Dath’s drone only weighs five kilos, if it fell from a height of five metres, the force of the impact alone would cause some serious bruising (at a minimum). Add the potential for lacerations caused by eight spinning blades, and, even the industry’s biggest boosters admit, it could be an ugly sight.

Another worry is that a drone could fly out of control and crash into another aircraft, potentially bringing it down.

It is visions like these that have the industry doing more than admitting what would happen if such accidents did occur. They are working to make sure they don’t happen, not only because of the damage they could cause to life and property, but also because of the damage they could do to the industry as a whole.

This is why firms that have been approved to fly drones for commercial purposes are pretty protective about their right to do so.

Currently, only 18 companies and the Copenhagen Fire Brigade are permitted by Trafikstyrelsen, which regulates all national transport activity, to fly drones. However, the number that actually do so is far higher, authorised companies reckon.

Given their widespread availability, relatively low cost, and coolness factor, it’s become pretty easy for anyone to hang out a shingle offering services like aerial photography, video, or mapping. The problem is, it might be illegal.

Licenced to fly

Trafikstyrelsen doesn’t have the resources to actively prevent unauthorised firms from offering drone services. However, if it catches wind of one (normally because someone has posted a video on YouTube), it looks into whether the firm has abided by all the rules. If not, officials notify the police, who can issue a fine.

Even for licenced firms, there is no end to the rules they must observe. There are regulations regarding size and location, and a requirement that the person on the ground maintain eye contact with the drone.

Companies using drones say they are of two minds about the rules which limit their use. Everyone agrees they ensure people don’t get hurt, which could potentially mar drones’ reputation for a long time to come. But on the other hand, they feel fettered. Some even admit to bending the rules.

“I flew illegally for a long time,” said one now-authorised operator who asked not to be named. “Mostly because I didn’t know what the rules were. Now that I am established, though, I can see that an accident by an unauthorised operator would ruin it for everyone, not least the authorised businesses that have invested in this.”

Operators (as the guys on the ground are called) point out that drones are already a proven technology. The problem is that we haven’t figured out how to fly them safely and consistently in the same space as people, man-made objects, and other aircraft.

The technology to do that is on its way. Sensors mounted on drones will be able to identify power lines, other aircraft, buildings, and anything else a human pilot would know to steer clear of.

Both the industry and regulators agree, though, that an immediate solution would be a better certification system for operators. Think of it as a driving licence, says Henrik Michelsen, Trafikstyrelsen’s leading expert on drones.

He confirms that such certification is in the works, but also says that the real challenge is making sure that Denmark’s regulations, generally regarded by those in the industry as sensible, are not tighter than in other countries.

The concern isn’t so much that tough rules could make Denmark’s skies off-limits to drones. The fear in the industry is that it might clip the wings of what proponents hope could become the country’s next big industry.

All that, however, takes testing. The rules governing such tests are in everyone’s interest; no-one wants a wild-west over our heads.  Then again, says Kjeld Jensen, who works at SDU’s RoboLab and is Dath’s advisor, that kind of freewheeling environment – confined to safe areas like Hans Christian Andersen Airport – is what attracts firms and universities looking to develop new applications.

Anything you can do, I can do cheaper

As everyone points out, there is no shortage of drone models around.  According to businesses and developers, it’s the applications that developers are really interested in working on.

Stephan Mølvig, an engineer with COWI, a consultancy, puts it this way: when it comes right down to it, a drone is just a platform. It can be fixed wing. It can have rotating blades. But what really sets a drone apart is what equipment you put on it, and what you programme it to do.

His firm was the first in Denmark to be granted permission to fly drones commercially, and is now in the process of identifying how to integrate drones into the services they provide. Some, especially those involving aerial photography, are easy to spot.

Mølvig himself has been to Greenland, where he used drones to measure glacial ice and to determine how quickly plant life re-established itself in an Arctic climate.

The tasks, he says, could have been done using an aeroplane, but with a drone it took less time and required fewer people. And it cost less, too.

“Anything a plane can do, a drone can do cheaper and faster. The quality of a photo might not be as good when you take it with a 5,000-kroner camera instead of a million-kroner camera mounted in an aeroplane. But a drone can be on the wing in seven minutes, and data can be transferred right away. And if it breaks, I can fix it myself.”

Other, less straightforward uses, are still waiting to be thought up. Beer, pizza, and book deliveries are probably not in the industry’s future, but you also get the impression they’d be too mundane. “The thing with drones,” Mølvig says, “is that what you do with them is limited only by your imagination.”

And, for now, by a set of rules.

News

By Kevin McGwin

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