What regulations on drones are currently in place here in the UK?
There are strong regulations in the UK, put in place by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). These include keeping the drone in your line of sight at all times by flying below 122m (400ft), not flying within 50m of populated areas, vehicles and structures, and staying away from areas of controlled airspace like airports. The regulations are sufficient and sensible at the moment; it’s illegal activity that is causing problems such as the recent near misses at airports.
There are slight differences in the EU and US but there is an attempt to harmonise these.
The US has recently introduced rules where anyone who owns a small unmanned aircraft that weighs more than 0.55lb (250g) and less than 55lb (25kg) must register it with the Federal Aviation Administration’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems registry before they fly outdoors. Again, this might have the effect of penalising law-abiding citizens and having no impact on illegal activity. Other countries are watching this with interest to see if it is successful.
What prevents people from breaking the rules?
The CAA prosecutes people that it manages to catch. More sophisticated drones are also fitted with ‘geo-fencing’ software that prevents them being flown near to airports or other prohibited areas. We had a funny incident with one of our own drones recently; we fly lots of small aircraft at our Wide Lane sports facility, which is next to Southampton Airport, so we always phone the airport to get permission before we fly. At a recent demo a large, sophisticated drone refused to fly at Wide Lane because its geo-sensors detected it was near an airport.
What impact do drones have on our lives?
Drones are involved in producing the food we eat: large, professional farms now routinely use them to detect areas of weeds and poor yield that need to be targeted for herbicides and fertilisers. This saves farmers a lot of money and prevents them releasing unnecessary chemicals into the environment. They are also used in atmospheric research – to monitor pollution, the weather and climate, and in scientific studies that involve monitoring hazardous areas like volcanoes. They are also having an impact on popular culture; all the film companies use them now and the aerial shots you see in the latest films and TV programmes are captured by drones.
Will they have even more of an effect on our lives in the future?
Potentially, yes. A step change would be the ability to operate drones safely in populated areas – delivering parcels, doing maintenance on buildings and filming events like the London Marathon. For this, drones need to be extremely reliable, so that if one of the rotors fails, it won’t fall into a crowd or road. Through our research, we are trying to understand why components of drones fail – for example whether it is vibration, heat or wear, so that we can build drones that can withstand these problems.
Drones could improve safety at large events by monitoring and controlling crowds: if you are looking from above you can see things developing that you can’t see from the ground, so they could be valuable for the police, security services and fire services. The Hampshire Fire Authority visited us recently to find out more about our research because it would be incredibly useful to fly a drone over a fire to see the source of combustion.
They could also be valuable in maritime search and rescue: if someone is lost at sea, drones can search for them very quickly and efficiently. We will be starting some flight trials for the RNLI soon, testing how drones can fly in poor weather and over the sea.
What else are you working on?
We are working on several interesting projects right now that show how useful drones can be on scientific missions. For example, with colleagues in Geography, we are using drones to capture imagery of riverbanks to monitor erosion and flooding of coastal regions. And, in collaboration with the University of Bristol, we are flying drones in hazardous areas – surveying active volcanos and capturing some of the gases the volcanos are emitting to study the volcanic process.
We are also working with the shipping industry – both commercial and naval – to see how drones could benefit their operations. Shipping companies generally worry about three things when they are doing Atlantic crossings: avoiding whales, icebergs and pirates. Ideally, civilian shipping companies would like some imagery from 20 to 30km ahead to check for these hazards, and a cheap, semi-disposable aircraft would be ideal for this task.
Here at Southampton, we produced the world’s first printed aircraft, and this is what we have been using for this project. Printing technology is attractive because it is relatively cheap – if you damage a wing, you can just print another one. We have recently done some trials in the south Atlantic to check how well the drones operate in poor weather conditions – particularly low temperatures – and this was extremely successful.
What sparked your interest in this topic?
My background is aerospace: I have worked in the aviation industry for many years, for BAE systems and Airbus. I have a pilot’s licence and fly light aircraft in my spare time, so I certainly also have a vested interest in not bumping into drones!
Now I teach aircraft design, where we want students to predict the behaviour of aircraft, and then build and fly small aircraft to validate their observations. Working with drones has been really useful to allow students to ‘close the loop’ by testing their theories on a real aircraft. Our teaching naturally led into building model aircraft, which have become so sophisticated over the years that we progressed into drone technology and research.
How does Southampton rank in this area?
We are easily the leading UK university in drone technology. Last year, we were chosen as the sole UK partner to help operate the new FAA-funded National Center of Excellence for Unmanned Aircraft Systems in the USA. We are collaborating with our colleagues in the USA to share knowledge and research into expansion of operations and safety. The facilities here at the University are state-of-the-art. We have around 30 drones of different shapes and sizes, two £500,000 Mercedes control vans, fitted with radio masts and control systems, which control and track our drones, as well as reliability labs, wind tunnels, engine test facilities and local flying fields.
What do you enjoy most about working at the University?
We have a delightful group of people to work with. It’s a joy to come in and have lots of dedicated, bright, intelligent people to interact with – both staff and students. The University has a strong research ethic so it’s supportive of ambitious research and has a strong interdisciplinary ethos.
Find out more about Jim’s research.
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