Drones: mapping out the road ahead

Last month’s publication of the world’s first draft standards for drones may have a bigger impact on the commercial vehicle industry than might seem immediately obvious.

The Draft International Standards for Drone Operations have been issued for public consultation by the International Organization for Standardisation (ISO), an independent non-governmental body with around 160 national standards organisations (including the British Standards Institution, BSI) among its members.

The closing date for comments on the draft drone standards is 21 January 2019, with final adoption expected later next year in the US, UK and worldwide.

Though air safety is central to the standards, they are not confined to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). A drone is defined by BSI as “any vehicle, ship, aircraft or hybrid system that is remotely or autonomously controlled”. So the new standards will apply to the autonomous trucks, buses and vans now under development just as much as to aerial drones.

ZR autonomous van

Adoption of the new standards next year is expected to herald a rapid acceleration in drone industry growth. A report published eight months ago by accountancy firm PwC estimated that the aerial drone industry alone could contribute as much as £42 billion annually to UK gross domestic product by 2030, creating 628,000 jobs in the process.

Current regulations on drone operation are described as “not fit to enable the industry to develop” by Robert Garbett, chairman of the BSI’s drone standards committee. “An industry that is moving so fast needs to be standards-led, not regulation-led,” he says. “It is not efficient.”

Though the standards will not be compulsory, he hopes and believes that they will become “best practice”.

Operators already exploiting benefits of drone technology

Although truck fleet managers tend to be sceptical about the rapid development of self-driving vehicles, some have been quick to take advantage of other commercial benefits offered by unmanned aerial vehicles.

Dawsonrentals, one of the UK’s biggest truck and trailer rental and contract hire operations, has been testing a drone to take photographs of the roofs of trucks and trailers before they are hired out and then again when they are returned.

The drone is controlled through a Dawsonrentals app for smartphones and tablet computers. Drone test results are described as “encouraging” by John Fletcher, managing director of the Dawsonrentals truck and trailer division.

One result that has surprised him has been the discovery of defects in the roofs of brand-new vehicles, even before they have gone into service for the first time.

“That alone has saved possible future problems for customers and ourselves,” says Fletcher. “There is every reason to expect we would have handed these bits of equipment over as brand-new, which they were, with both parties expecting them to be faultless.”

Dawsonrentals drone controls

Drone delivery systems are well advanced

What was probably the first business delivery in the UK by an unmanned aerial vehicle was made in South Yorkshire three years ago.

Operated by Yorkshire-based Droneflight, the drone was working for FPS, a parts distribution subsidiary of the Lookers vehicle dealer group. Described as a “proof of concept” project to establish the feasibility of using drones for local parts delivery, a Gates belt tensioner was flown from the FPS national distribution centre in Sheffield to a nearby motor factor, Brakeline.

“We are constantly striving to find the most innovative and effective ways to service our customers,” said FPS managing director Neil Davis. “In an industry where time is critical, if we are able to get to our customers more quickly, in a way that aligns with our business ethos, we will continue to invest in making that a reality.

“In the short term, the drone solution is likely to be cost-prohibitive, and with current legislation, we are not planning any changes any time soon.

“Given the varied weight of products in our portfolio, it would only really be viable for lightweight parts travelling to customers in less populated zones. However, this has proved a very useful exercise.”

Droneflight emphasises that the delivery complied with all regulations governing UAV operation. The drone was controlled by a qualified pilot with permission from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and its total weight was limited to a 7kg maximum.

New UK rules banning drones from flying within 1km of airports came into force six months ago. At the time, the Department for Transport said that the number of “drone incidents with aircraft” had risen from six in 2014 to 93 in 2017.

The new rules also restrict drones from flying above 400ft. Other rule changes, set to come into force at the end of next year, will require all drone pilots to take an online safety test. Owners of drones weighing more than 250g will have to register with the Civil Aviation Authority.

Tim Blakemore
Tim Blakemore is an award-winning automotive journalist and the former editor of our sister title, Commercial Vehicle Engineer magazine. He is also the UK representative on the panel of judges for the biennial, pan-European Trailer Innovation Award scheme.

What are your thoughts? Let us know below.