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  • Charl Jooste

Autonomous Flight Takes Off

With so much hype around self-driving or autonomous cars, many people are not aware of the massive developments that have been made in unmanned flight. The technology is already in place and the potential applications are enormous.

In a first for the helicopter industry, Bell displayed a pilot optional helicopter at the recent Consumer Electronics Show. This is just one of many aircraft manufacturers that are working towards pilotless aircraft.

Unmanned flight technology is nothing new and demonstrations of unmanned helicopters were done by Lockheed Martin (they acquired Sikorsky in 2015) as far back as 2010.

Development is currently coming from two angles. On the one hand, you have the traditional drone makers scaling up. They are developing bigger and better drones that will be capable of carrying heavy payloads or people. On the other hand, the existing helicopter and aircraft manufacturers, most of them anyway, are look at converting existing and new aircraft to be remote controlled and pilotless.

As always, the major snag slowing development and implementation down is regulatory red tape. Public perception is also a major hurdle. The technology itself is already in place.

The developments in on-demand air transport have prompted a number of new partnerships. Uber, for example, have forged new ventures with Boeing, Bell, Airbus, Pipistrel and Embraer.

The idea is to build a network of aircraft to compliment their ridesharing business. Basically, it would be Uber in the air with a distributed network of autonomous aircraft and helicopters capable of short air trips and landing in small fields or rooftops.

There is also development in the use of this technology for humanitarian work, firefighting and agriculture. A partnership has been formed between Drone America and Thrush Aircraft.

Thrush makes turboprop air tankers for firefighting and agricultural applications. They issued a joint press release where president and CEO of Drone America, Mike Richards said, “We founded our company on the belief that highly-reliable, well-integrated autonomous systems can significantly improve public and environmental safety. Our collaboration with Thrush represents a major step forward in achieving that goal, and we’re excited to be joining forces in the fight against one of our country’s most challenging foes: wildland fires.”

The company also has plans for other heavy payload applications for use in the maritime industry as well as disaster relief. These developments will make the application of such efforts a lot less expensive but also eliminate the risk to humans in the more dangerous applications.

Mitch Snyder, CEO of Bell Helicopter also made a statement regarding the new developments at the Consumer Electronics Show. Snyder said, “Bell Helicopter is innovating at the limits of vertical flight and challenging the traditional notion of aviation to solve real-world problems,” adding, “The future of urban air taxi is closer than many people realize. We believe in the positive impact our design will have on addressing transportation concerns in cities worldwide.”

These are certainly exciting times for autonomous flight and the applications are life-changing. Regulations need to be adapted and implemented with minimal delay to drive these exciting new developments.


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