A few insights on drone regulations

At the end of July, Amazon published two position papers about UAV regulations for airspace in the United States.

The Guardian provided a brief overview of these papers, which can be accessed here. Amazon’s proposal to create a commercial airspace dedicated to drones is smart thinking for the company’s future, as drones have numerous applications ranging from transporting goods to fostering recreational opportunities.

As drones become more pervasive and their technology continues to evolve, they will become further integrated into people’s lives. Their increased popularity also means that regulations affecting them will need to readily adapt to a shifting landscape. Yet future regulations must be careful—they can’t regulate commercial use in a manner that causes drones to become too expensive and inaccessible to consumers. This would create a significant—and unnecessary—barrier to their use and adoption.

The first paper from Amazon, titled “Revising the Airspace Model for the Safe Integration of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems,” proposes a new airspace design that features two zones dedicated to UAVs:

  • A zone below 200 feet for low-speed, localized traffic. Potential drone operations in this zone could include videography, surveying, and building and site inspections. These operations would use simpler drones that require less technology.
  • A high speed transit space between 200 and 400 feet for vehicles that feature more sophisticated technology. The flights of these drones can be coordinated with each other to further enhance safety. They can also travel at faster speeds, allowing them to transport goods over greater distances.

This paper also proposes creating a no-fly space between 400 and 500 feet to act as a buffer between drones and current conventional aircraft, such as passenger and cargo planes. This buffer aims to enhance safety and mitigate fears about the impact UAVs may have on unmanned flights.

airspace-design-small-drone-operations

The second paper, titled “Determining Safe Access with a Best-Equipped, Best-Served Model for Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems,” further explains what constitutes “well-equipped vehicles.” To ensure safe operations, it essentially segregates UAVs into four classes—basic, good, better, and best—based on the type of equipment embedded in them:
Vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications—These communications allow drone flights to be coordinated with one another to enhance safety.
Command and control networks—Through this technology, ground stations and vehicles have a central view of flying UAVs and the ability to change their flight paths remotely via internet connections.
*Sense and avoid technologies (SAA)—These technologies use sensors and algorithms to prevent collisions in the air.

airspace-access_medium802

In Amazon’s proposal, the flights of vehicles equipped with proper technology would be coordinated with an Air Service Navigation Provider (ANSP), which would act like a traditional air navigation service, handling operations such as navigation, air traffic control, and communication.

Because these solutions require a range of new technologies to be embedded in UAVs, they stand to significantly impact the costs of owning and operating them. And unfortunately, these increased costs stand to restrict their usage and accessibility. Consequently, we need to carefully develop the right technology for the right uses. Whether improving how we transport goods or assisting with emergencies, drones can play an even larger role in our lives than they currently do. But for this to happen, they need to be developed in a manner that ensures they remain affordable and accessible to everyone.

Yet no matter the technology used to address these solutions, it must place an emphasis on safety—just like in the civil avionics industry. From my perspective, this is a major point that Amazon’s proposal misses. If you look at civil flights, all are certified—and thanks to standards like DO178, this includes their software. Today, however, UAVs are being developed without similar standards.

Creating development protocols and accompanying certifications can help ensure the safety of people on the ground and that a drone will behave as it should. No matter a drone’s technology, it needs to safeguard against hardware failures that could cause damages and software bugs that could prevent a drone from being controlled properly. This requires the development of high quality software—and luckily, this has been a key focus for us ever since we launched HEXO+. It’s why we currently have more than 15,000 test cases built into our continuous integration system. To ensure the quality of our software, these tests examine it through the lens of diverse use cases that explore its full capabilities. A commitment to safety also drove our decision to use six propellers, which we have done since our inception. This amount creates a redundancy that still allows the drone to operate in the event of a failed motor, ESC (electronic speed control), or propeller.

Yet this is just the beginning. We believe the only viable way to address the rising costs of safety and certifications in the UAV industry is to follow the lead of the avionics field. To do this, we must leverage its vast experience with safety while adapting this knowledge to UAVs and keeping solutions affordable. This also requires developing formal procedures and tests to address the various objectives of any new standards. Safety, after all, should be anything but an afterthought.

Amazon and drones regulations

Some of you might have seen that end of July Amazon published two position papers about UAVs regulations for US Airspace: http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/jul/28/amazon-autonomous-drones-only-airspace-package-delivery

Amazon’s proposal to create a commercial airspace dedicated to drones is smart thinking for the future of its business proposition, as drones have many applications allowing people to have access to delivery, transportation, and hobbyist activities alike. We will increasingly see more drones hanging around in everyday life as this technology evolves and becomes more ingrained in consumers’ daily lives.

The uptake of drones means that regulation will need to change to adapt; however, given the utility of personal-use application of drones, regulation must be careful not to regulate commercial use in such a way that drones become too costly to deploy and inaccessible to consumers, as this will in turn create a bar to their usage and adoption.

The first paper from Amazon, titled Revising the Airspace Model for the Safe Integration of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/2182311-amazon-revising-the-airspace-model-for-the-safe.html), is proposing a new design of airspace to dedicate two zones for UAVs:

  • a low-speed localized traffic for operations below 200 feet such as surveying, videography, and inspection with lesser-equipped vehicles.
  • a high speed transit space between 200 and 400 feet for well equipped vehicles

This paper proposes also a no-fly zone space between 400 and 500 feet to act as a buffer between the drones and current conventional aircraft such as passenger and cargo planes, thus mitigating fears about the impact on manned flight or dangers posed to people on the ground.

airspace-design-small-drone-operations

The second paper, titled Determining Safe Access with a Best-Equipped, Best-Served Model for Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/2182312-amazon-determining-safe-access-with-a-best.html ) details what Amazon means by “well equipped vehicles”. It basically segregates vehicules in four classes for safe opeartions depending on the type of equipment embedded in the UAV. It considers those are linked to:

  • V2V: Vehicule to Vehicule communications
  • Command and Control Networks
  • and Sense and Avoid technologies (SAA) – be it collaborative or non-collaborative.

airspace-access_medium802

In amazon’s proposal, those vehicle equipped with proper technology would thus be coordinated with an Air Service Navigation Provider (ANSP) which will act as a delegation of responsibility of the traditional air navigation service, such as navigation and air traffic control and communication.

Those solutions relies a lot on new technologies to be embedded in UAVs – but this has also a collateral impact on costs. Increasing the costs to build such drones will restrict usage. We need to be very carefull in choosing the right technology for the right usage. Drones can play a bigger role in our daily life, enabling fast transportation, having emergency situation deliveries done, … but it can only be developped at reasonable costs and with technologies accessible to anyone.

Moreover, like in the civil avionics industry, whatever the technology you use, you still need a high level of safety. This is in my view a major point missing in Amazon’s proposal. If you look at civil flights, all are certified – including on the software side with standards like DO178 – but today UAVs are being developped with nothing like this in mind.
To properly ensure safety of people on the ground or ensure that the drone will behave as it should be you need to have as well a methodology of development based on certifications. Whatever the technology you embedded in your drone, you need to ensure you don’t have any single hardware failure on the drone which would cause damages, or software bugs you won’t control. This requires high quality software development and this is a key focus we have in our team since the beginning at HEXO+. This is why we have today more than 15000 test cases build in our continuous intergation system, and more than 1000 unit tests being run at least 8 times a day. This is also why we choose six propellers from the beginning to ensure redundance in case of failure of a motor, ESC and propeller.
This is only a start since we believe the only viable path to address the issue of rising costs of certification and safety in UAVs industry is, as this is already done in the avionics domain, to use formal methods in combination with testing to address various objectives of the standard.

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Antoine
Antoine is a co-founder and our flag-bearing CEO, making sure we know where we're going, we deliver on time and we have the most epic team in the biz. Plus tons of stuff that have to do with management, finances, administration, which most people consider wouldn't consider fun. He does.