Earlier this week, Ran Krauss was flying high. The Israeli CEO and co-founder of Airobotics, makers of a fully autonomous drone platform, had just scored a world first, gaining approval from the Civil Aviation Authority of Israel to fly his company's unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the country’s airspace without a 'human in the loop'.
He gushed to media that he had just “made history”, that the certification was a “next generation milestone” that would “revolutionise the global market landscape”, the aerial equivalent of "an autonomous car with no driver".
Krauss’ now wants to see his autonomous drones in Australian skies, and needs to convince a strict regulator, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), which fiercely guards air safety standards.
But CASA is also eager to get pilot-less UAVs into the air. Once a global pioneer of drone regulation, its “world leader” status is slipping.
Commercial desire meets regulatory will. With such a favourable wind, fully autonomous drones look clear for take-off.
Used by mining operators to survey stockpiles, utility companies to run aerial inspections of critical infrastructure and farmers to assess crop health across huge swathes of land, drones have proved hugely beneficial to Australian enterprise.
To operate a drone in a commercial setting, current regulations stipulate that there be a human involved. Although any given UAV flight may be almost completely automated – the flightpath fully pre-programmed with GPS – rules require that a pilot be able to take control at any point.
In most cases it is also required that the pilot keeps a direct line of sight with the UAV, although six operators currently have CASA approval to carry out BVLOS (beyond visual line of sight) flights.
Airobotics – which has received investment from the likes of Noam Bardin, the CEO of Google-owned Waze and Richard Wooldridge, COO of Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects group – offers a autonomous drone platform, made up of a drone, a base station and cloud software. Once missions are mapped and scheduled, the platform requires no further human intervention.
In February Airobotics announced that it was working with its first customer – miner South32 – on a trial of the platform at the Worsley Alumina mine in WA. At Worsley, a human pilot is required by regulation to observe each flight and be ready to take control. But as Airobotics’ director of flight operations Joe Urli explains, that isn’t how the platform was designed to work; the advantage is not needing a person on the ground.
“Regulations and amendment mechanisms trail behind the pace of Airobotics’ technology,” Urli says. “Regulations in Australia still mandate a human pilot in the loop.”
The former Boeing and General Electric executive joined Airobotics in December to boost the company’s local presence.
“The benefits of not having a human pilot are many,” says Urli, who also sits on CASA’s aviation safety director advisory panel. “Human error is eliminated from the safety equation, the automated systems are not subject to fatigue, and are repeatable. Automated drone systems also have structured and auditable decision points backed up with data and facts. Response time and availability, which are critical to enterprises, are shortened significantly when using an automated system. It’s always-on, always available, for a one-click operation.”
Urli is now working with CASA to reach an equivalent accreditation to that gained in Isreal.
“We will work closely with the authorities to achieve this objective,” Urli says. “Airobotics is working openly and collaboratively with CASA at every level to ensure that they can keep up with the international trends in drone regulation.”
In 2002, Australia became the first country in the world to regulate the operation of drones.
"A lot of other countries have been looking to us in formalising the regulations," says industry expert Ross Anderson, managing director of drone pilot training provider Aviassist. “We’re not probably right at the cutting edge at this very second.”
Its pioneering drone regulations attracted a number of foreign companies wanting to test UAV concepts to Australia. Google X’s Project Wing delivered water, chocolate and first aid supplies to Queensland farmers by drone in 2014.
Since then other countries have raced ahead. In its much publicised pizza delivery UAV trial, Domino’s chose to test in New Zealand. The CEO of Domino’s drone partner Flirtey, Matt Sweeny, said at the launch: “The eyes of Silicon Valley and the world are on New Zealand, which has the most forward-thinking aviation regulations”.
Amazon has been trialling its autonomous Prime Air drone deliveries in the UK countryside since the end of last year after receiving special dispensation from Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority.
“We saw slow but steady progress since,” explains Urli. “Now we have the Federal Aviation Administration and New Zealand stepping ahead of Australia with beyond visual line of sight approvals only to be trumped by Israel with beyond visual line of sight without pilot approval. Certainly an interesting regulatory race.”
CASA is now keen to catch up. In a statement of expectations to its board issued this week, Minister for Infrastructure and Transport Darren Chester said he wanted a “world leading aviation safety regulator”, picking out “emerging risks in aviation such as remotely piloted aircraft systems” as a strategic priority.
The authority told Computerworld that it will work with any operator “who seeks fully autonomous drone operations” to ensure such flights could be done safely and within regulatory requirements. To date “no-one has yet sought approval for completely pilotless operations,” CASA said.
“As commercial operators identify a need for new types of activities, CASA will work with them to ensure safety standards are not compromised without imposing an unnecessary regulatory burden. However, safety must always come first,” the authority added.
Airobotics believes it can convince CASA that its autonomous drones pose no risk to safety. The company clocked 10,000 hours of flying hours as part of its CAAI approval. The company’s UAVs are now flying above ICL and Intel facilities in Israel.
CASA said it would need to assess the capabilities and "complex interactions" of the drone hardware and software in any application. Anderson is positive but cautious of removing human oversight: "Computers can always go wrong," he says, noting the need to ensure drones can avoid any manned aircraft that may cross their path.
But CASA has the will if Airobotics can prove it has found the way.
The authority noted the “enormous growth” in the commercial drone sector in recent years, with applications being “widened constantly”.
“While this rapid growth is creating the challenges," it said, "Australia is well placed to continue to be a world leader in commercial drone activities.”