Sensors and artificial intelligence will be critical to the next generation of drones, according to a leading academic.

Dr. Mirko Kovac is Director of the Aerial Robotics Laboratory and Reader in Aero-structures at Imperial College London. In his belief, the combination of sensors, AI, digital infrastructure systems, and robots working collaboratively will help the future digitisation of cities.

Part of Kovac’s own research work is in infrastructure diagnostics via sensors placed in robots on land, in the air, and underwater.

Speaking at a recent Westminster eForum conference on UK drone policy and commercialisation, he said,

“What I would like to emphasise is that there are three waves of robotics. The first one was in factory automation. The second – which is happening now is – in areas such as autonomous cars, which are examples of a data-based autonomy.

“But the third wave, which is coming, is about entire robotic ecosystems: robots moving together and working together, and leveraging the physical layer of their existence, material science, and morphology, to carry out some of their tasks.”

Alongside autonomous deliveries and aerial photography, a range of other sectors hold out the promise of commercial exploitation for drones, the conference heard.

These include infrastructure maintenance, offshore repairs, surveillance, search and rescue, and agriculture, all of which will benefit from sensor-filled drones working singly or in swarms, sometimes linked to ground or subsea robots, AI, and data analytics systems.

Currently holding back some of these applications are strict regulations to do with BVLOS (beyond visual line of sight) manoeuvres for unmanned aerial systems. For example, in farming these currently prevent remotely piloted drones from surveying large tracts of land from the air.

Part of the challenge lies in air safety, as thousands of BVLOS drones would have to be safely integrated with air traffic management systems, and also safely avoid colliding with other drones, both remotely piloted and autonomous.

However, there are signs that the situation is easing: in the US in August, retail giant Amazon received permission from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to test delivery drones BVLOS in areas of low population density.

An emerging, if unexpected hotspot for drones may be in aerial additive manufacturing – otherwise known as flying 3D printers, explained Kovac.

“If you imagine that a printing head acts as a 3D printer and flying robots can collectively construct structures.”

Drones that can build or repair structures in this way could be used as stop-gap solutions until more intensive work can be carried out by human beings, he said.

“This is really coming back to the ‘third way’ for robotics, which is about using morphology and structures to be able to engage in the physical environment to carry out repair, manufacturing, and manipulation tasks.”

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