Building from BVLOS and Assuring Autonomy

How do we achieve a step change in UAS capability? 

As you will have seen in our blog on Monday, our vision is for drones to become widely adopted in society. However, to date, drones are still relatively early in their levels of adoption. So, how can we see widespread adoption of drone in a way that society embraces?


How do we cross the chasm?

The film and media industries have adopted drones fairly widely due to relatively low barriers to entry, whereas industries such as power generation or transport networks are still only in early stages of using drones, with the technology typically featuring in their innovation projects. In almost all cases, operation requires drone pilots operating in line of sight and with relatively low levels of drone autonomy.

The below figure can be used to describe how we adopt drones as a society, where most of the current drone users can be considered as early adopters. The gap to the early majority is often referred to as "the chasm" because there is a big difference in the behaviours of these two groups. The former typically are willing to take risks on emerging technologies, on the promise of significant longer term gain, whilst the latter tend to be more pragmatic and want to pick up the technology and easily apply it to their needs.

We find that the step change most organisations want to exploit is to operate Beyond Visual Line of Sight (recognised as >500m), with levels of autonomy that reduce the decision making burden on the operator. But most early majority organisations also want low barriers to adopt this capability and easily apply it to their needs.


What are the barriers to BVLOS, autonomous operation?

It’s generally accepted that it is not technology which is not holding back drones’ adoption, but instead more significant barriers are whether society or the regulator will accept a BVLOS, autonomous drone capability.

The recent IMechE Drone Public Perception survey showed that for a wide proportion of uses society are highly in favour of drones. Arguably, this demonstrates that societal perception is a less significant barrier than demonstrating that BVLOS, autonomous operation can be done safely and in compliance with regulations.

How can we operate BVLOS?

The key challenge in crossing the chasm for BVLOS is being able to operate in unsegregated airspace alongside the variety of other airspace users, like light aircraft, police or ambulance helicopters. One of the key barriers to getting a CAA approved Operating Safety Case is installing a system like "Detect and Avoid" on a drone to try to avoid mid air collisions - a significant challenge we have been working on where there is currently little consensus on what good looks like.


Why is autonomy a further step change?

If a BVLOS capability is considered a highly challenging problem, proving the safety of an autonomous system is another level again. True autonomy involves the system thinking for itself in a way that can't be 100% predictable, making it really difficult to show the decisions made will always be safe. We have been leading a consortium of industry and academic experts to answer this question.

It is really exciting that drones are becoming an increasingly valuable tool providing benefits across society and we believe we have so far seen only the tip of the iceberg. We should keep focused on cracking the nut of BVLOS autonomous operation to truly see a step change in the adoption of drones and benefits of #dronesforgood.

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