Keeping Skies Safe in the Age of the Drones

By Christopher Jasper | September 19, 2018
Pilotless aircraft that can drop a package at every doorstep or ferry you across town in a fraction of the time taken by the fastest subway train have been a staple of science fiction for decades.

But the Drone Age is now just around the corner, making it high time to prepare for the numerous safety challenges it will pose, according to Airbus SE.

The planemaker’s Altiscope team, part of a Silicon Valley think-tank on new technologies, this week mapped out a vision for the future of flight, together with a blueprint for allowing exotic new craft to mingle with more traditional models without courting disaster.

A new breed

Airbus envisages a raft of new aircraft categories, some of them already beginning to enter service, others just around the corner:

Hobby drones: Flown for fun by untrained users via remote control or according to a preset route. Supposed to stay below 400 meters (1,312 feet) in most areas, but many don’t.

Imaging craft: Able to scan a location faster and more safely than people, with applications spanning construction and agriculture through insurance and disaster relief.

Delivery bots: Everything from retail purchases to prescription drugs will be dropped at your home or office. Just 1 percent of deliveries would create more than 14,000 flights across Europe every daylight hour.

Flying cars: So-called air mobility craft will take off from “vertiports” across towns and cities, with numbers increasing hundreds of times over as the technology becomes more affordable.

Pseudo-satellites: Self- or remotely-piloted models that operate far above normal commercial altitudes, staying aloft for weeks on end and acting much like satellites but at reduced expense. Applications include imaging, Internet access—and spying.

Staying Safe

Airbus projects that in Paris alone drones will account for almost 20,000 flights per hour by 2035, while operations with commercial aircraft are set to double.

Traditional methods of air traffic management will no longer be able to cope, making it vital that practices and systems are completely overhauled. Among the issues:

Computer control: Overseeing the exponential increase in flights will be beyond the capabilities of humans. Their role will by taken over by a host of decentralized digital service providers responsible for coordinating with each other while observing safety, security and performance standards set by government regulators.

Shared skies: Piloted airliners will use the same runways as unmanned cargo planes, flying taxis will dart across the paths of helicopters and high-altitude drones will coexist with military jets. Restricting access will stifle advances and isn’t an option, Airbus says.

Self-piloting a must: The commercial viability of drones and air taxis requires economies of scale that would make human involvement in each flight unaffordable. Craft must therefore be able to react to changing circumstances and take evading action when necessary.

Self-management: Operators must be allowed to undertake their own flight planning, vehicle assignment and coordination, allowing them to engage in activities such as formation flying and mass-hovering.

Avoiding collisions: While some craft will be allowed to determine their own paths or coordinate with traffic-management services, in busier areas they’ll be confined to three-dimensional corridors or—around airports and warehouses—narrowly defined fixed routes.

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