The Plan to Make Drones Not Ruin the Skies

Before drones plop packages on your porch or a flying car whisks you to work, these future flyers must learn to play by the rules of the sky. That means communicating with air traffic control and other aircraft, spotting and avoiding threats and generally knowing what to do when things go wrong.

Making all of this happen demands whole new levels of capability from the aircraft and from the system that oversees them.

Commercial drone technology barely existed a decade ago. Now regulators are hustling to integrate it into the national airspace. The FAA tapped Intel CEO Brian Krzanich to lead its Drone Advisory Committee, and established seven test sites to explore drone flight management. NASA is supporting the quest with its unmanned aircraft traffic management research program.

Everyone is moving fast, but safety trumps efficiency and technological advances. “Our challenge is to find the right balance where safety and innovation co-exist on relatively equal planes,” FAA chief Michael Huerta told the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Symposium in March. “As we move toward fully integrating unmanned aircraft into our airspace, the questions we need to answer are only getting more complicated.”

Right now anyone operating a drone for commercial purposes must first pass a test covering traditional pilot know-how like wing load factors and airspace regulations. Drone pilots must keep their flyer below 400 feet, away from crowds and airports and within their line of sight. These restrictions are designed to keep drones out of trouble. The FAA occasionally waives some restrictions with an eye toward seeing which rules it could loosen, but some people say overzealous regulation will keep the tech from reaching its potential.

“There are so many applications that will benefit from drone use,” says Mark Barker, director of business development and marketing at the Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems, which the state government created to expand the use of unmanned air systems. “Energy companies can inspect 50 miles of power lines with winged robots instead of human-piloted aircraft. Drones can conduct search-and-rescue, fly filming missions, survey environmental hazards and act as couriers. They’re more efficient and more cost-effective than human-piloted aircraft.”

The FAA sees good reason to move cautiously, given basic questions that remain unanswered. How will the aircraft respond when it runs out of power or experiences a failure? How will it communicate with air traffic control to approve a flight path or line up for a landing? And how will it avoid smacking into other aircraft?

“If there’s no pilot in the aircraft scanning the horizon, and it’s not big enough for its own radar, how will they detect other aircraft?” says Ed Waggoner, director of NASA’s Integrated Aviation Systems Program. “How do you get information to the unmanned aircraft or the ground-based pilots-in-command in remote-flying situations to avoid other aircraft that may not be clearly announcing their intentions?”

New, miniaturized sensor technology will be key here, particularly the ADS-B positioning systems increasingly common in commercial and civilian aircraft. That technology is approaching drone-friendly dimensions and power requirements, but other problems remain. “In the case of what we call ‘non-cooperative’ aircraft – those flying without those systems either deliberately or because they’re not required to – we need to determine whether ground sensors or airborne sensors in other aircraft represent the best strategy for tracking them,” Waggoner says.

Communicating with air traffic control presents its own problems. The FAA must determine how onboard flight management systems will function, and how those data-based, nonverbal systems will “talk” to controllers on the ground. It could be that the systems operate in a hybrid fashion, with human aircraft operators on the ground assisting otherwise autonomous aircraft through certain phases of their missions, or the successful integration might be contingent on the arrival of the next generation of air traffic control technology.

That happens to be in the pipeline, as well, via the FAA’s ongoing NextGen modernization program. This concurrent evolution is both a complication and a blessing for planners working to merge unmanned aircraft into the national air system. “We’re working with the FAA to ensure that our own work with UAS integration is forward-looking, so we’ll be ready for how air traffic control will function in the transportation system a decade or more from now,” Waggoner says. “But we also need to be safely testing these systems in a realistic, current environment.”

That’s where the FAA’s seven test sites come in. For instance, later this month, Nevada’s Institute for Autonomous Systems – the largest of the seven, with the ability to operate state-wide – will participate in a “Technical Capability Level” evaluation at its Reno facility. It will test a variety of traffic management systems on fixed-wing airplanes and multirotor copters, with flights up to 1,200 feet altitude and across several miles of approved airspace. Other test sites around the country will be similarly engaged, running their own tests with various commercial and research partners.

In Nevada, researchers will conduct long-distance aerial survey, package delivery and emergency response missions. They’ll also try out ground-based sense-and-avoid systems. In January, they’ll throw in “non-cooperative” aircraft – those not identifying themselves – over moderately populated areas. Sometime after that, they’ll expand the test to denser urban areas and explore tasks such as news gathering and package delivery.

As they move toward full freedom, these aircraft must rival humans not just in skill, but in judgment, knowing what to do with the information they collect. “It’s not just sensing and knowing, but the vehicle needs to know the rules-of-the-road when flying – go left if you’re on a collision track, go over there to avoid contact, plan your path this way etc.,” says Richard Pat Anderson, director of the Flight Research Center at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. “That requirement is not baked into the current FAA vision for NextGen, so it will need to be there, as well.”

When the FAA has finally reached a solution that answers all these concerns it will gradually alter the regulations to permit unmanned and autonomous aircraft to zip around the skies, hopefully without causing trouble. Only then will you be able to whip out your smartphone and order some sneakers or whistle up an autonomous electric air taxi to take you to the mall to buy them yourself.

Tech Trends That Will Define 2017

No one can predict how the future will shake out, but global design and strategy firm Frog is making some educated guesses for 2017.

Last year, the firm correctly predicted that virtual reality would explode in popularity and that sensors in things like appliances and thermometers would continue to shrink in size.

Buildings will harness the powers of nature.
Around the world, large companies are leading the way in building solar-powered offices that don’t rely on fossil fuels. Frog strategist Agnes Pyrchla expects the trend to continue in 2017. “Taking a nod from natural patterns,” she writes, “material scientists and architects have developed bricks with bacteria, made cement that captures carbon dioxide and created building cooling systems using nothing but the available wind and our vibrant sun.”

Business bots are going to be huge.
In the way the communication app Slack has merged bots into its chat service, frog strategist Toshi Mogi believes entrepreneurs will use artificial intelligence to handle the logistics of running a business. “The entrepreneur will commission an assortment of business bots to bring their vision to reality,” Mogi says.
He uses the example of selling high-tech skateboards.  A research and development bot might automatically solicit designs from freelancers, while a sales and marketing bot polishes the online e-commerce platform — all to help the business owner work faster and more precisely.

Synthetic food will be in every grocery store.
Designer Andrea Markdalen sees two big changes in store for food. The first is that plant-based proteins will gain popularity as a replacement for slaughtering live animals. The second is that tissues drawn painlessly from live animals will be engineered to create synthetic, lab-grown food. “In 2017, we’ll see a broad range of new plant-based meat replacements at your local grocery store,” Markdalen writes. “They will extend well beyond the vegan aisle, where most are currently relegated, and they will taste better than ever.”

Virtual reality will take over sporting events and concerts.
Instead of shelling out hundreds of dollars for a Kanye West concert in 2017, Piet Aukeman and Sonny King say virtual reality will finally make its mark in home entertainment. Venues will be able to livestream entire shows for people who want to watch without leaving their living room. NextVR is already partnering with Live Nation to make the setup a (non-virtual) reality. “For those consumers that lack the VR hardware,” they write, “the community can provide ‘VR Stations’ in malls, transportation terminals, and open spaces.”

Sensors in important spaces could save us lots of headaches.
All types of rooms — living rooms, retail floors, hospital bays — will come embedded with sensors, say Chad Lundberg and Jud Holliday. These sensors will pick up information on usage patterns at different times of day, in different noise environments and in different temperatures. Companies like Vivint already produce security systems that work in a similar way. Vivint’s Smart Home technology bundles security cameras with locks and thermostats, allowing it to both keep people safe and know when to save energy.
“Spaces will no longer simply house and support your activities,” Lundberg and Holliday write. “They will participate.”

Autonomous vehicles will get a whole lot smarter.
With Tesla and Uber both vying to break into (really, create) the driverless car industry, frog creative director Matt Conway thinks we’re not far from autonomous vehicles saving us from ourselves. With the right technology, multiple cars could “talk” to one another and reduce the chance for crashes. An emergency maneuver like running a red light to avoid getting rear-ended “might seem reckless if it was taken by a human,” Conway says, but because autonomous cars could work together, that measure could be  “as reasonable and life-preserving as any taken by a professional body guard.”

Virtual reality will be used as part of therapy.
VR as therapy is something of a repeat from frog’s 2016 list; only this year, the company expects it will become so immersive that it could rewire people’s brains. There is already research that shows VR can help people overcome their fears and PTSD. Designer Kyle Wolf suspects the technology move into rehab for physical brain injuries as well. “Mindmaze, a pioneer in this space, is already creating virtual environments for stroke patients,” Wolf says, “causing their brains to re-wire themselves and re-establish mobility in forgotten limbs.”

Doctors will have huge data sets to make medicine more precise.
Precision medicine — the practice of tailoring treatments to each patient’s unique case — is incredibly hard. It takes fine-toothed data that most hospitals simply don’t have. In the future, as medical records become entirely digitized and uniform between facilities, strategy director Allison Green-Schoop believes precision medicine will only improve. Doctors will be able to look up much more local data, such as water quality in your zip code, to gain insight into a disease’s source, not just its symptoms.

Sounds will hold our attention like never before.
For the last 30 years, humans have interacted with their technology through screens, which rely primarily on imagery and visual cues. But creative director Christine Todorovich sees a future in which sounds start playing a much larger role. Instead of controlling your cooking device by manually selection options in an iPad app, you might be able to articulate commands openly in your kitchen. Companies like Here One already try to help people personalize their sonic experiences. “The combination of screen fatigue and technology embedded in everything from cars to homes, is exposing a need for new types of interfaces that extend beyond the visual,” Todorovich says.

Drones will assist in humanitarian work.
Drones are great for much more than stylized movie shots. Designer Lilian Tse cites efforts in Rwanda, where a drone airport facilitates medical deliveries to people in need, as clear evidence that humanitarian aid is their best use. “The definition of a drone is ‘unmanned aircraft,'” she writes, “but behind the unmanned aircraft is a person driving the intention and potential of what the aircraft can do for people in need.”
This year, Tse says we’ll see more people move into that service.

Machine learning will teach us about ourselves.
When Google’s robot, AlphaGo, beat a human player in the ancient Chinese game Go, artificial intelligence experts cheered. It was a giant leap forward in the field of machine learning. But frog senior strategist Rebecca Blum says AlphaGo also taught expert Go players how to play the game better. They learned from the machine’s own learning. According to Blum, machines can help us understand ourselves in a variety of ways. Algorithms that automatically write prose might teach us about creating writing. Scientists could continue learning about the brain based on how complex neural networks store new information.

Huge Changes Lie Ahead

Brick-and-mortar stores will go tech – and warehouses will go back to the drawing board. As consumers increasingly shop on their computers and phones, brick-and-mortar retailers will need to adopt the attitude ‘If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em’ in order to survive. Innovation will be key, making use of technology that integrates omnichannel shopping into the physical experience of being in a store and matching the logistical advantages of online merchants.

ApplestoreApple is one retailer already using this forward-thinking approach in its stores. Its sales floors feature products that people can touch and try on their own, spending as much time as they’d like. They can buy and take home merchandise if they choose, or they can go home, do further research and buy online – with free overnight shipping. This may be a model other retailers will emulate.

Shipping might become quicker, much quicker than overnight delivery is, when drone delivery touted by Amazon comes to pass in the next several years.

Efficient distribution will be key, and the increasing importance of logistics and automation will impact warehouses across the country, many of which are obsolete even now, lacking up-to-date technology and adequate clearance height and often too remote to accommodate same-day delivery. That will add up to a lot of activity in the industrial sector in coming years, with old warehouses being retrofitted or new ones being built.