Get Ready for the Helicopter size Drone

“This drone is not delivering books,” said Janina Frankel-Yoeli, VP, Marketing, Urban Aeronautics who spoke at the recent LA Drone Summit held on March 20, 2017 in downtown Los Angeles.

A video demo of the prototype drone developed by Israeli tech firm Urban Aeronautics was one of the evening’s highlights.

Looking more like a flying car than a drone, Frankel-Yoeli says The Cormorant drone can carry a bigger payload then a helicopter (around half a ton), travels at a whopping 115 miles an hour, and can get into tight canyons for tough missions. Someday this car-size drone could be used to do a medical evacuation on the battlefield, a rescue in tight canyon where a helicopter can’t fit, and because it’s unmanned – could more safely control a fire or chemical blast.

“It goes where a helicopter can’t because it has no rotors,” explained Frankel-Yoeli.

Frankel-Yoeli also acknowledged that nothing of this size that is remotely piloted has been FAA approved. Getting FAA approval is one of several hurdles to clear before this autonomous vehicle hits the market in 2020.

Today Hollywood movies depict drones or UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) as small missile carrying robots used for aerial attacks. In the Bourne Legacy Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), an agent of a CIA program living in the woods is targeted by a drone strike. Cross outsmarts the drone strike by removing the radio-frequency identification implanted in his thigh and force-feeding it to a wolf who is then blown up by a missile.

But the panelists assembled at LA’s Drone Summit say Hollywood’s version of smaller size drones or autonomous swarm drones in military applications, is just one possible scenario.

Moderator Van Espahbodi, Founder of Starburst Accelerator led the evening’s talk focusing on what it will take for drone technology to take off. Panelists included Daniel Burton, Founder of DroneBase, Janina Frankel-Yoeli, VP Marketing Urban Aeronautics, William Goodwin, Head of Legal for Airmap, and Adrienne Lindren, Business Development Manager of the Office of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.

In regards to autonomous flying, Daniel Burton an FAA Certified pilot and founder of DroneBase, an online platform for booking commercial drone services sees autonomy as years away still. He himself says that DroneBase isn’t necessarily working towards creating an autonomous fleet for commercial drone use.

“We see the human pilot as part of the equation,” said Burton, describing the commercial test flights that DroneBase is currently running.

Many challenges face drone technology being adopted. Noise being one of the biggest complaints about drones, was cited by Adrienne Lindren of the LA Mayor’s Office. Drones fly in airspace below 400 feet and consumers are voicing concern about the noise (caused by propellers) and also the invasion of privacy.

“Do people want a drone with a camera mounted on it flying outside their window?”, Lindren said. She cited this as just one of the questions she is getting from citizens. The Los Angeles Mayor’s office in all this debate (as with its stance toward autonomous cars) she says is trying to be less of a hindrance and promote innovation for business.

Business in Los Angeles of course means filming movies. It’s no secret that Hollywood is interested in using Drones to film movies cheaply, more safely, and to capture better aerial shots. But due to regulations some productions such as action film The Expendables for now at least, are doing their drone filming in Bulgaria where strict FAA regulations don’t apply.

Airmap, an early stage startup in Santa Monica, hopes to make drones a part of everyday lie by building the airspace services platform to let drone sfly safely. At a minimum this means building software that allows drones to detect a plane flying space and prevent crashes into larger commercial airplanes, says AirMap’s William Goodwin.

How will drones impact our lives in the next ten years?

The trends, innovations and how to predict how UAVs are going to change the way we live seems hard to say at this point.

From saving costs of search and rescue missions, delivering medical supplies, or decontaminating a chemical explosion drones have some good applications beyond warfare. But drones also face many challenges like FAA regulations, consumer privacy and safety concerns, and how to prevent an autonomous swarm fleet from falling into enemy hands – until the robotic technology takes off.

One thing the panel did make clear is that drones and new innovative prototype drones, are here today.

And more importantly, the basic software services, innovators behind design breakthroughs, and pilots to man them don’t seem to be going anywhere.