Drone technology is in its infancy but in the not-too-distant future we are likely to see unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) perform actions like paint or clean, with the ability to visualise very small items like a hairline fracture in a building structure. This is according to Dr Steve Wright, who is Associate Professor in Aerospace Engineering at UWE Bristol and a drone expert. He also predicts that we could see freight and even passenger-carrying drones by 2030.
But there are still many challenges to overcome before these autonomous aircraft are reliable and trustworthy enough to be an integral part of our society, says Steve. In fact, he believes the technology needs to be improved by a factor of one million before it is safe enough.
The current big challenge is to programme a drone to navigate and fly autonomously through a cluttered environment, like a city, in a safe way, and we are still a long way off.
The MAAXX (Micro Aero Autonomous Extremes Europe) drone racing contest that Steve organises is the second iteration of Europe’s only indoor drone flying contest. The two-day UWE Bristol event on 23-24 March takes place in the University’s exhibition centre and sees several teams programme their UAVs to fly unaided around a designated track, with a hackathon for budding coders to programme a ‘house’ drone provided by the organisers.
As well as a useful day for industry to meet their peers, and a fun day for families (on the second day only), the event also contributes to driving forward the technology. Given they are part of a contest, the teams push drone development to their limits by finding solutions to UAVs veering off course, or not stopping in time.
Previous to his work in academia, Steve worked in the aerospace industry for over two decades. “I look at drones with the eye of someone who for 25 years has been helping to build systems in conventional aircraft and these are exciting times for UAV development.”
He explains that we are at the exact point in history as with conventional aircraft development in 1918 – exactly 100 years ago. Using the comparison, he says: “We are at the equivalent point in time where we know how the Wright Brothers were able to fly their plane, and have already built a Sopwith Camel [a war plane used in the First World War]. We can glimpse what a spitfire looks like, but still have no idea what aircraft will look like in 30 or 40 years.” As a result, we have a clean slate with UAVs, he adds, and still have so much to learn about and improve.
Interestingly, the technology is being developed from the bottom up, says Steve. “Some other similar technologies have been driven from the top down by large corporations, but this one is from the bottom up, by consumers, very much like the early days of the electronics operations.”
As for the future, says Steve, we are moving towards close-up imaging, whereby a drone will soon be able to detect minute structural faults on a bridge or building. We could also soon see drones that clean surfaces such as solar panels in the desert that become covered in sand.
Steve also predicts that as soon as 2030, we are likely to see drones carrying passengers as well as freight over short distances.
His biggest fear about the drone industry? “The trouble is that there are many people who know how to fly a drone and although they are often not reckless, many are unaware of the safety issues. Those of us involved in the drone industry live in terror that somebody will cause a horrendous accident – this would shut us all down in a single afternoon.”