Technology startups and established aerospace companies worldwide are in a race to develop autonomous transport drones. The goal is a sky full of pilotless vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft, easing congestion on the ground, shortening journey times, and reducing emissions in our cities.
Most of those with passenger drone ambitions believe that new hardware is needed to back up their vision, with innovative designs that solve logistical problems and overcome economic hurdles. So, most of those competing in the space – from Kitty Hawk to EHang to Airbus to Intel – are building drone transport solutions from scratch.
But it’s here that there’s a clear divergence with the development of autonomous vehicles on land. Many of the companies exploring driverless cars, for example, started off by attaching their systems to regular vehicles for testing and training purposes. Indeed, many test programmes still use modified vehicles from traditional manufacturers, such as Volvo and Toyota, in development partnerships.
But there are even more problems to solve in the air, so the developers of autonomous passenger drones have set themselves an enormous challenge by starting with a blank sheet of paper.
While trials are ongoing in Dubai with Intel-backed Volocopter, for example, and EHang has released some impressive test footage, promotional videos are more common than real-world success stories.
Reach for the sky
However, the latest startup to enter the space, SkyRyse, is approaching the challenge like many of its contemporaries in ground-based driverless transport.
Instead of scaring regulators with futuristic designs, the team is testing its autonomous autopilot on existing hardware, the four-seater Robinson R44 helicopter. The platform will be fitted out with SkyRyse’s advanced pilot assistance system (APAS), which combines AI with a ‘flight perception suite’ of onboard sensors and decision-making algorithms.
To begin with, SkyRyse’s APAS will aim to lessen the pilot’s workload and reduce human error, but eventually, it could take control completely.
Getting a headstart with altruism
Developing and pitching the technology is just one part of the challenge, however. A major obstacle to pilotless transport is convincing authorities to open up airspace for testing – something that’s difficult to justify if all you’re designing is a billionaire’s play-thing. Instead, SkyRyse is highlighting how its technology could transform the response times of emergency services.
The most successful drone delivery projects to date – such as those from Zipline and Matternet – are those that have life-saving potential. So it makes sense that the first concrete testing of autonomous aerial transport in the US should be carrying out tasks that justify the risks.
In January 2019, SkyRyse will begin operations in Tracy, California. The startup will offer support to the city’s emergency response units, across law enforcement, search and rescue, and firefighting operations.
“Every year, billions of hours are wasted in traffic and spent following inefficient travel corridors, taxing our well-being and economic productivity,” said Mark Groden, CEO and co-founder of SkyRyse.
“We are building an air transportation service that is not limited by today’s infrastructure. Because the stakes are highest in emergency response situations when minutes can mean the difference between life and death, we’re launching SkyRyse Emergency Response to support governments and municipalities first, with plans to change how we get around our cities in the future.”
Building trust with emergency applications
The SkyRyse emergency support service will use VTOL aircraft equipped with its APAS system, a mobile application, and a team of experienced pilots to whisk emergency responders to where they’re needed four times faster than ground response teams – at what the startup claims will be a fraction of the price.
Operations will be manned to start with. But in time – as suggested above – the system could be trusted to operate independently.
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Skydio – the consumer drone startup whose $2,500 aircraft is capable of weaving through a forest, dodging trees, and reacting to dynamic environments – has shown on a miniature level what autonomous drones are capable of with sophisticated computer vision systems onboard.
SkyRyse intends to do the same at human scale, and the company appears to be heading in the right direction by starting out with an application that few authorities would turn down.
“The City of Tracy is always seeking out new, innovative technologies that can bolster the safety and wellness of our community,” confirmed Tracy Police Lieutenant Terry Miller.
“SkyRyse’s focus on safety, their world-class team, and exceptional technology attracted us to the partnership. SkyRyse’s Air Emergency Response service will help us respond to emergencies faster and more affordably.”
Plus: Epson launches smart glasses app for DJI drone pilots
In related news, printer and projection specialist Epson has taken further steps into the augmented reality market with a dedicated application for DJI drone pilots using the company’s Moverio smart glasses.
Drone Soar is the first integrated AR app for DJI pilots controlling real-world flights. When used in conjunction with the Moverio headset, Drone Soar delivers a range of useful tools for pilots, including flight telemetry data, a live video feed from the drone’s camera, and a pre-flight checklist.
The app was designed with DJI, with whom Epson already has a technology partnership, to improve safety and productivity by providing a hands-free, heads-up experience.
“By combining the power of augmented reality delivered by the Epson Moverio BT-300 AR smart glasses, the heads-up app is redefining the way that drone enthusiasts experience their aircraft,” said Romsin Oushana of DJI Partnerships.
“Available to the consumer market for the first time, the app enables users to push the limits of drone piloting in ways that have never been done before.”