Ireland’s First BVLOS Delivery of Insulin

Ireland’s First BVLOS Delivery of Insulin

Skytango's CEO Steve Flynn kneeling beside a white fixed wing drone from Wingcopter

Steve Flynn pre-launch at Aer Arann aerodrome, Connemara

JANUARY 2019 | Month 1

Hello,
Can you please give me a call to discuss the logistics of sending a 50g payload to the Arann Islands via drone.
Best Regards
Derek

This was the brief email I received from Professor Derek O’Keeffe of NUI Galway back in January 2019 which gave birth to the #DiabetesDrone BVLOS (beyond visual line of sight) historic event which took place in the middle of Connemara – ironically 9 months later!  The project was led by NUI Galway, project managed by Skytango with partners Survey Drones Ireland, Wingcopter, Vodafone and global healthcare company Novo Nordisk.

Prof. Derek O'Keefe of NUI Galway in foreground with white Wingcopter drone hovering in the background

Prof. Derek O’Keefe, NUI Galway | Photo: Andrew Downes @xposure101

Derek, a Professor of Medical Device Technology, NUI Galway and Consultant Physician at Galway University Hospitals, asked me to meet with his group after he’d read about our work with the national postal service here in Ireland in 2018. He asked if we could deliver a batch of diabetes medicine (insulin) via a drone from the mainland near Galway to the Aran Islands.

Following Hurricane Ophelia in 2017 and the flooding that ensued, Derek noticed that his diabetes patients were unable to make it into his clinic. Storm Emma the following year had similar results when patients were snowed in on farms. All patients with Type 1 diabetes require a supply of both insulin and glucagon for disease management and 40% of patients with Type 2 diabetes require insulin therapy. These medications are usually available from local pharmacies, however in remote geographic regions, communities and individuals can become isolated for days and a situation may arise where patients can run out of their lifesaving diabetes medication.

This gave him pause for thought. Climate change meant that these severe weather events would not be isolated and would become more commonplace in the future which would put his patients at greater and greater risk. He felt it was incumbent on him to look for a solution.

If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right!

My initial reaction was that not only was this a worthwhile #DronesForGood project but it was an opportunity to explore what is real and what is hype when it comes to drone deliveries. Because of advances that have already been made in the industry, I explained that the act of simply delivering something by drone was no longer news, but a BVLOS (beyond visual line of sight) delivery that tracked operational and regulatory compliance – vital for the delivery of medicines – and kept all stakeholders informed in real-time; the drone pilot, the hospital, the drug manufacturer, the patient, even the doctor and community under the drone, would be a project worth doing.

This was a terrific opportunity to work with NUIG (Galway University) but I knew we needed a cross-discipline team to pull it off.

The question was, what kind of drone did we need?

The first drone suggested was the DJI Mavic Pro.  I heard from several quarters that  ‘the specs say it will fly 8km’.

That’s the first bit of hype I needed to overcome. Just because a drone might say on the label that it can fly the distance, doesn’t mean it can really do it.  Secondly, you can’t just throw a drone up in the air with something strapped to it and expect it to perform as it would without a payload. Thirdly, the distance we needed to cover was well over 8 km!

A traditional quad or octocopter wasn’t the best choice either to cover the almost 20km we needed it to.  I knew we needed a fixed-wing system. I figured if we’re flying a parcel the size of an Epi-Pen,  a foam wing with a small area for the payload might be the craft for the job. However, many of the pilots I know who fly foam wings were sceptical about this being reliable enough and on further investigation, the payload would need to be kept at a constant temperature which meant different technology and a larger payload.

As I was searching for the right machine, I was introduced to Sam Barraclough and Wayne Floyd of Survey Drones Ireland.

Back in April of this year, they were preparing to receive a new fixed-wing VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) from a German startup called Wingcopter. I looked at the specs on this machine and it seemed perfect. It was midsized, had set a Guinness speed record (with an average of 240.6 km/h) and could land virtually anywhere.

#DiabetesDrone Skytango, Wingcopter Drone

Wingcopter VTOL Drone flying in Connemara, Galway | Photo: Andrew Downes/@exposure101

I arranged a meeting with Survey Drone’s chief pilot Wayne Floyd, who has a long history of flying drones including for the Irish military. He’s a quick-witted fast-talking drone pilot and certified trainer whose energy, enthusiasm and ‘can do’ attitude was a plus, and I knew he had the experience to follow through and actually do what he said he could do.  We talked at length about how important transparency throughout the process would be and if we thought we could wade through the regulatory hurdles with the Irish Aviation Authority to make this flight a reality.

At the time we talked, there had not been a BVLOS delivery in Ireland. Wayne brought me in to meet his colleague Sam Barraclough. Sam’s expertise came from GIS services and traditional survey technology, but recently he and Wayne had been developing and growing the services at Survey Drones Ireland (a division of SISIrl). When we began to explore using their new Wingcopter drone to execute the delivery, Sam explained that their system was designed for carrying a large Lidar survey unit, and as such, was not really equipped with the necessary redundant systems that would be required by the IAA if we were going to get permission to execute this BVLOS flight. So it was back to the drawing board to find the right rig.

It looked like it wasn’t going to happen in the allotted timeframe.

I gave the bad news to Derek at NUIG but said we shouldn’t throw the towel in yet.  As it turned out, it was the first of many ups and downs on this 9-month rollercoaster.  A few weeks after my initial meeting with Wayne & Sam, they contacted me again and told me that they had spoken to the engineering team at Wingcopter and that they offered to join the efforts by supplying a drone specifically designed for drone deliveries. As it turned out, Wingcopter had been working with Unicef in Malawi doing long-distance deliveries for the past 3 months. We were back in the game!

Group of people standing by Wingcopter Drone in Vanuatu delivering vaccines for Unicef

Unicef.org with the Wingcopter drone used for vaccine delivery

April 2019  | Month 4

In mid-April, we began to get a better sense of what the IAA would require from us to allow us to attempt this #DiabetesDrone BVLOS flight. Wayne Floyd led the effort to plan the RAM’s (Risk Assessments and Mitigation Statements). These are the documents that explain in detail what the risks of the operation are, followed by our efforts to mitigate those risks. You can never reduce risk to zero, but you can work through how to reduce the chance of anything happening to such a point where it is acceptable to execute the operation. Creating these documents is an extensive effort and includes everything from how to prevent collisions with other aircraft, the safety of the public, landowner permissions, solar flare and GPS signal limits, and anything else you might imagine could happen.

Also,  how would we assure connectivity with the drone over such long distance?

The Irish Aviation Authority required us to have constant data connectivity including very low latency for live video downlinks and telemetry over the 20km. Using satellite links was possible, but also very costly. So our second option was to leverage a mobile data LTE network if possible as our primary link, leaving the sat links as redundant backups. This meant we needed an additional partner.

Over the last four years, Skytango has developed a close working relationship with Dublin Smart Cities and I knew they had made great inroads into developing IoT networks. So I asked them if they could make any introductions at Vodafone Ireland. Once we explained the #DiabetesDrone project and goals, Vodafone stepped right up and agreed to support our efforts with their 4G LTE network. We arranged a group meeting and my thoughts were that now we could finally move forward.

Wayne, Sam, my co-founder Susan Talbot and I went into Vodafone to discuss how it would all work and we were met with our second obstacle on this journey to break new ground with drones. It was not a given that the signal strength we needed would work! The signal towers are focused on putting that signal on the ground, and nobody really knew how they would work with a drone flying as high as 1300 feet. Vodafone couldn’t guarantee their involvement until we could prove the drone had signal strength along its flight path.

So… more testing!  Sam, Wayne, and the Vodafone technician Rob Kennedy began working with the IAA to find a place in the country where they could put a Wingcopter up in the air near a tower and actually test signal strengths at various heights. Vodafone fitted special equipment to sense signal strength within the drone and determined that the optimum height would be from 130 Meters to 300 meters.

JULY 2019 | Month 7

It was mid-July before we had confirmation that we could meet the stringent IAA standards for connectivity across the entire flight path.

AUGUST 2019  | Month 8

By August 10th  everything was in alignment. We finally had positive tests thanks to Wayne, Sam and Vodafone’s engineer, Rob. We had the drone hardware (WIngcopter), the pilots (Wayne and co.), the network (Vodafone), our compliance and drone management software (Skytango), and the final piece of the puzzle was waiting for the IAA to say yes.

If you push the regulator, they’ll push back!

Regulators in Ireland actively resist responding to commercial pressure or deadlines when they are charged with ensuring public safety, as it should be. So no amount of phonecalls will hasten the process. A BVLOS (beyond visual line of sight) flight is something that, as yet, has no clear process in place here, so there were no simple forms to fill out. No way to just apply and get a sign-off. We were in new territory. Wayne led the charge throughout the summer months through many meetings and many revisions of RAM’s to get the approval.

We chose to believe that the IAA was on our side and wanted to champion innovation, so in early August we took a chance and began to book flights and accommodation to bring over the crew from Wingcopter for the week-long testing scheduled before the actual delivery flight to Inis Mór.

We only had a provisional sign off from the IAA and this wouldn’t change until two days before the scheduled flight which put everyone under pressure.

Flying in the face of superstition, we scheduled the delivery for Friday the 13th September.

MONDAY | Sept 9th 2019

Our Wingcopter crew arrived on Monday,  9th September. Drone Pilots Santiago Montenegro, Christoph Zechner, and Wingcopter engineer Julius Boes arrived in Dublin with their cases and their drones and in the case of Christoph – a healthy dose of jet lag as he flew in from Japan. This was a big deal for us all. We drove our caravan of vehicles across Ireland to the Gaeltacht area of Connemara, just west of Galway.  Our first view of Galway Bay was sunny and full of promise. We drove to our accommodation in Carraroe, about 15 minutes west of the aerodrome in Inverin where we would be spending the week, and got ready for our first flight tests on Tuesday. We still had no final approvals from the IAA but hoped they were close.

TUESDAY | Sept 10th 2019

#DiabetesDrone Project Team Breakfast

L to R: Santiago Montenegro (WC), Wayne Floyd (SD), Christoph Zechner (WC), Martin Osborne (Camera).

After a hearty breakfast on Tuesday morning, we began setting up our launch area in the empty parking lot adjacent to the Connemara airport.
One of the big issues at an airport is who is allowed to be “airside” or on their runways. Because we didn’t know how many people we’d have on a given day, we didn’t want to have to negotiate that paperwork, so we positioned our area in an unused section of the parking lot behind some ropes. This would become our exclusion area for launching and landing.

The gravel was much more packed than we’d expected. This prohibited the crew from securing to the ground the tarp that would prevent stones and dust kicking back up into the drone on launch. So we needed another solution. Utilizing our local fixer’s contacts, we found a fish processing factory nearby that was willing to supply us with some large pallets to build an elevated platform.

But the weather began to close in and the rain and wind we associate with the west of Ireland began punishing us. We abandoned testing when winds of 35 mph and heavy rain pushed us home early.

WEDNESDAY | Sept 11th 2019

As an American, September 11th is always a little poignant for me. It felt good for us all to be involved in an aviation project that has the potential to benefit others in a really useful and practical way and ultimately, save lives.  Our plans for the day included getting the final approval and clearances from the IAA and initiating flight tests to check connectivity on the drone over the channel.  But again, the weather was not cooperating. We continued finalizing the landing zone, and the Wingcopter team did a detailed inspection of the drone after its shipping from Germany. They discovered one propeller showed small abrasions and needed replacing, which they did and proceeded to test the spares.  When a drone is flying BVLOS, everything needs to be in perfect condition. There can be no surprises and the margin for error is extremely small. This flight was primarily over water. I don’t need to spell out the consequences of a malfunction in a congested area – on this of all days.

We spoke to the IAA, and their senior drone regulator committed to attending our Thursday tests and the Friday delivery. However, while we had mission approval, we were still missing approval to close the airspace. We needed a TRA (Temporary Restricted Airspace) issued, and a NOTAM (Notice To Airmen) which was to come from another department within the IAA. These are what other pilots use to plan their flights and we needed to be listed to be safe. With only two days to go before we lost our team and the drone, we had still not completed a flight test and had no idea if the #DiabetesDrone project would go ahead.

Before we shut down for the day and in an effort to get some preparation done,  the Wingcopter team executed an 18km flight by flying a 1.8km circuit 10 times. It took 15 minutes from launch to landing.

#DiabetesDrone hovering near airport

Photo: Andrew Downes @xposure101

The Wingcopter is one of the most graceful drones I’ve seen in action. It fed not only the engineer in me with its function, but the artist in me with its form.

The first time I saw the drone fly, I was mesmerized. It launched and sounded like most large hovering drones. But when it transitioned into forward flight, it went almost silent.  And it moved fast! The wind was blowing at 25 to 30 mph and had zero effect on the drone. My old octocopter would be working so hard in that wind it would fry the batteries. Actually – I wouldn’t be able to fly it in 30 mph winds.

THURSDAY | Sept 12th 2019

On Thursday the weather began to break. The drone regulator from the IAA arrived on site and we were finally able to begin putting the Wingcopter through its paces. Half of our team, Sam, Julius and Christoph, took the 10.30am ferry over to the Island of Inish Mór, the largest of the Aran Islands, to act as the secondary safety team. They would be on the landing site in the event someone needed to manually land the drone and would remain there until their return ferry at 5 pm.

The first flight was more exciting than it needed to be!

It seemed as though there was some interference with the GPS signal and the drone wasn’t as stable as it had been the day before – except in manual mode – which seemed to be perfect. The team determined that the most likely source of the problem was a video transmitter being used by the film crew. Every time the cameraman ventured near the drone and control stations, their transmitter seemed to cause problems. It was probably a poorly tuned or out of spec transmitter but the lesson learned is… if you’re going to fly a drone BVLOS, keep everything else away from it as you just don’t need the mystery of things like radio interference.

By 3 pm, the weather had cleared and the team were able to show solid stabilization modes, clear signal and good GPS. Wayne was able to execute a few VLOS (Visual line of sight) test flights out over the water near the airport simulating the crossing.   Again, they flew 20km each time by flying a circuit with a 1km radius, each loop running nearly 4km in circumference. This was the first day I got a look at the payload pod. Even this was impressive.  Inside this pod there is a temperature regulated box to hold medicine and samples.

By the time the second team returned from the island, we had still not received our NOTAM for Friday. Without it, there would be no delivery the following day and all the efforts and money spent would be for nothing.  While we were confident we would get it based on all the feedback we were getting from the IAA, there was still a chance it could be denied and there would be no #DiabetesDrone project to speak of.

There are many departments within an organization like the IAA, and they all have a responsibility to ensure decisions are based on safety and merit and not any external pressure. We all understood that and have a deep respect for their role, but it’s easy to lose that perspective when you know you have all the ‘T’s crossed and the ‘I’s dotted and with failure dangling in your face. We really wanted that NOTAM!

We had been working with Connemara airport all week. Our flight path was over the sea and in some of the quietest airspace in the country. The emergency recovery boat (an IAA prerequisite) was ready to go.

Who’d know if we went ahead and launched anyway“? Without proper permissions, as a team, we’d rather walk away empty handed than push through because we could.  If you’re doing this for a living, it’s not only about doing the right thing, but the correct thing.

Compliance of every aspect was the lynchpin of the entire project, from a medical regulatory standpoint as well as from an aviation regulatory standpoint and doing anything other than adhering to that would have defeated the purpose.

The weather forecast for Friday looked like the best of the week, but we’d all go to bed not knowing if the #DiabetesDrone project would materialize.

FRIDAY | Sept 13, 2019 | D-DAY 

Unlucky for some…but not for us!

The morning was clear with bright sun, blue skies and low winds. The final word came back from the IAA that our NOTAM was approved and issued the night before at 20:17. We had finally cleared all the regulatory hurdles and run multiple technical tests. Now, it all had to come together with the medicine on board.

I chose to go to the landing zone on Inis Mór with Derek. I’d seen the drone fly the day before, and I was excited to be present on the receiving end of this historic event. I joined the team on the 10.30am ferry and arrived at the Inish Mór airport around 11:50 am.

Aerial shot of Ferry leaving Rosaveel travelling to the Aran Islands

Ferry leaving Rosaveel en route to Inis Mór | Photo: Andrew Downes @xposure101

The safety team set up their workstation and opened radio comms to the shoreside station.

Listening to the team on the shore run through their checklists using the Skytango App and prep the drone was terrific. We could hear the drone power up and launch, and then we watched it on the telemetry as it began its journey across the sea.   There were 10 people waiting in anticipation at the airport, Derek, Owen Treacy, the country manager of Novo Nordisk (the manufacturer of the medicine being shipped), the local doctor, a diabetic patient, and the airport staff. Everyone had the same niggling fear in the back of their minds that was never voiced for fear of making it a reality.

What would happen if the drone went down? Would there be anything to recover for the recovery vessel?

Thankfully, we never had to find out. About 8 minutes in, we got the word the drone had crossed the midpoint of the channel. This meant that any emergency or ‘return to home’ maneuvre would bring the drone to us, and not back to its launch point.

At 14 minutes, we were warned to watch for the drone. You could hear it just before you could see it, and at 13:30, the drone was identified inbound over the centerline of the runway, just as expected.   It swooped in over our heads and did a large smooth arc to enter a landing pattern. It flew downwind and came around flying into the gentle 4mph breeze. When it transitioned to hover mode it made a loud pitching sound, and then went into a perfect hover.

As it began to descend on autopilot, I couldn’t help but notice it was the best landing of any drone I’ve ever seen. It was like it was on an elevator, one smooth movement all the way to the ground.

It touched down, powered down, and we’d done it!

I honestly couldn’t believe after 9 months of finding the right team members and working with everyone to help get over the challenge of the day, we’d done it. We’d flown the first autonomous BVLOS (Beyond Visual Line Of Sight) delivery of diabetes medicine  in a regulated space in Ireland and possibly in the world!

Map of flight path from Rosaveel to Inis Mór

The halfway mark or the moment ‘Home’ became Inis Mór

As if that wasn’t enough when the doctor took the medicine off the drone, the team placed a blood sample to be returned to the mainland for testing into the pod. The nose cone was mounted and the drone launched itself back into the air, yawed northward and flew like a seagull back to the mainland, landing where it began an hour earlier.

The battery still had 70% power remaining and could have done the mission over again  – twice.

This was (and is) a seriously efficient drone managed by a very talented group of people and the whole project, while it didn’t go smoothly from beginning to end, was an absolute pleasure to work on and will hopefully pave the way for other worthy BVLOS projects in Ireland.

#DiabetesDrone Group on Inis Mór after the BVLOS Insulin delivery

About #DiabetesDrone Partners

NUIG
NUI Galway is one of Ireland’s foremost centres of academic excellence. Over 18,000 students undertake an extensive range of studies at the University, which is renowned for the quality of its graduates.

NUI Galway is a research-led University with internationally recognised expertise in areas including Biomedical Science and Engineering, Web Science, Human Rights, Marine Science, Energy and Environmental Science, Applied Social Sciences and Public Policy, and Humanities, in particular literature, theatre and Irish Studies.
For more information visit www.nuigalway.ie
Further information on the #DiabetesDrone will be available soon on  www.diabetesdrone.com

Vodafone
Vodafone is Ireland’s leading total communications provider with 2.3 million customers and employs over 2,000 people directly and indirectly in Ireland.

Vodafone provides a total range of communications solutions including voice, messaging, data and fixed communications to consumers and to small, medium and large businesses. Since 2011, Vodafone has expanded its enterprise division, offering integrated next-generation fixed and mobile solutions in addition to cloud-based platforms, IoT machine to machine services and professional ICT support.

Vodafone Group is one of the world’s leading international mobile communications groups with mobile operations in 25 countries, partners with mobile networks in 44 more, and fixed broadband operations in 18 markets.
For more information, visit www.vodafone.ie

Skytango
Skytango is a drone operations management platform that was founded in 2015 by Steven Flynn and Susan Talbot.  Steve was one of the earliest drone pilots to hold a commercial license in Ireland and quickly realised the problems when working with drones, clients and the communities they fly over. Skytango helps manage the Health & Safety aspects of drone operations across industries such as construction, utilities and media as well as improving transparency with real-time communication between stakeholders. Skytango streamlines the business workflow for organisations that want to embrace drone technology while maintaining regulatory compliance.
For more information, visit  https://skytango.com/about-us/

Survey Drones Ireland
Survey Drones Ireland is a division of Survey Instrument Services (SIS). Survey Drones Ireland was created in April of 2018 to provide specialist training in the use of drones for surveying & construction purposes. SIS has specialized in the supply of high end Surveying Equipment since 1973. Shortly after its inception, Survey Drones Ireland became an approved IAA registered training facility, providing training across all types of drone operations, it rapidly expanded far beyond the surveying & construction industries

To date, we are proud to have trained hundreds of pilots in achieving their IAA licensing certificates, implementing drone workflows within some of Ireland’s largest surveying and construction companies as well as a number of state agencies. Our success has allowed us to invest in the very latest drone technology, software and training which has played a significant role in our level of involvement in this project and ensuring its success.
For more information, visit www.surveydrones.ie

Novo Nordisk
Novo Nordisk is a global healthcare company with more than 95 years of innovation and leadership in diabetes care. This heritage has given us experience and capabilities that also enable us to help people defeat obesity, haemophilia, growth disorders and other serious chronic diseases. Headquartered in Denmark, Novo Nordisk employs approximately 41,600 people in 80 countries and markets its products in more than 170 countries. For more information, visit novonordisk.com, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube.
For more information, visit: www.novonordisk.com/

Wingcopter
Starting a company in a small workshop and developing a cutting edge drone, this self-funded startup wants to inspire the world by aiming high and starting vertically. Following the German tradition of focus on quality, they use lightweight glass fibre and carbon airframes to create benchmark platforms that aims to get the best ratio between payload and take-off weight.
For more information, visit: https://wingcopter.com/

First Of Its Kind Waiver Allows CNN To Fly Drones Over Crowds

First Of Its Kind Waiver Allows CNN To Fly Drones Over Crowds

First of its kind waiver allows CNN to fly drones over crowds

The FAA has granted a waiver to CNN allowing the media company to fly drones over crowds, covering public assemblies to a height of 150 feet (45 meters).


The first of its kind to allow untethered flight to this degree, this waiver is the product of two years of research by CNN and its partner Vantage Robotics who established their case for safety with the FAA.

CNN is one of the most innovative media companies using drones for journalism and newsgathering. In 2016, they even established a dedicated drone unit to fully integrate aerial imagery and reporting across their networks and platforms.

The “Reasonableness Approach” developed by CNN and Vantage Robotics established conditions whereby a number of factors were taken into account before the FAA granted the waiver. These factors include the operators safe history of use, safety features of the craft and exhaustive test data, as CNN explains in their press release.

“We are pleased that Vantage was able to work with CNN to present and establish the safety case for the Snap to the FAA”,

said Tobin Fisher, CEO of Vantage Robotics.

The waiver to Part 107 (Small Unmanned Aircraft Regulations) applies to the use of the Vantage Snap UAS, a frangible, 1.37-pound aircraft designed specifically with crowd safety in mind.

Here is sample footage in 4K shot with the Vantage Snap:

While the Vantage Snap is limited in its use at the moment, this decision could spell the beginning of a new regulatory trend within the industry.

Former US presidential advisor and attorney Lisa Ellman of Hogan Lovells, the firm that represented CNN in the waiver application process, has been working hard in the last few years to develop legislation allowing commercial use of drones.

She believes this new legislation could have broader implications within the industry:

“CNN’s new waiver represents a very important development for the commercial drone industry at large. The FAA’s willingness to approve reasonable waiver requests is a strong step in the right direction as we seek to bring the benefits of commercial drones to the American people.”,

commented Ellman on Unmanned Aerial.

Ellman is a strong advocate of commercial drone use in the U.S. and feels U.S. legislation still has a way to go before the industry can catch up with countries like Japan, which has allowed the commercial use of drones for the past 20 years already.

In a broader sense, this regulatory step has the potential to bring the plans of companies such as Amazon, eBay and even regular delivery companies closer to fruition.

So what might this mean for the smaller, independent drone pilots? Well, probably not a whole lot just yet as this reasonableness approach puts a lot of weight on the user’s track record.

However, with the stock industry and other end users of drone footage increasingly demanding the footage they purchase be accompanied by full documentation and legal permissions, it won’t be long before pilots will earn their reputations for safety and compliance.

Exciting times. Watch this space.

Drones For Emergency Services: Use and Value

Drones For Emergency Services: Use and Value

drones-for-emergency-services-use-and-value

Drones are being used increasingly for emergency services, but how can emergency services leverage and safely deploy such technology?


This week Skytango hosts a special guest post by Anna Jackman, Lecturer at Royal Holloway University, on the reasons why drones are increasingly being employed as tools by emergency service responders.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), or drones, as the platforms are more commonly known, are the technology of the moment.

Drones are increasingly being employed in a growing range of hobbyist, commercial, and civilian roles, with their potential domestic applications considered “as diverse as the platforms themselves”.

This sentiment is reflected in the growing popularity and accessibility of commercially available off-the-shelf drones, used recreationally by hobbyists, with estimates that approximately 200,000 platforms being sold per month globally.

Furthermore, in a recent report, professional services giant Price Waterhouse Cooper (PWC), proposed that the global market for the commercial applications of drones, spanning: infrastructure, transport, insurance, media, telecommunication, agriculture and mining industries, could be valued at over $127 billion by 2020.

Lastly, drones are increasingly being enrolled in a range of civilian applications. Referring to those applications which are neither commercial nor recreational, drones have been employed as tools for humanitarian, disaster, and emergency service response.

The latter will be the focus of this piece.

DJI’s report on lifesaving drone operations

In profiling the ways in which drones have been employed as tools to both “save and protect human life” in emergency situations to-date, leading drone manufacturer DJI this year released a report entitled ‘Lives Saved: A Survey of Drones in Action’.

Opening with the assertion that drones allow first responders to

“accomplish tasks faster, more efficiently, at a lower cost, and in many cases more safely than in the past,”

the report reviews 18 incidents in which drones were deployed by emergency services professionals or members of the public in assistance of such operations.

Together, these actions were associated with saving 59 lives.

In these instances, drones were used in both search and rescue (SAR) and supply delivery capacities, with the report concluding that SAR may be the most effective use of lifesaving drones.

EENA and DJI’s partnership

In making this claim, DJI turned to further research undertaken in collaboration with the European Emergency Number Association (EENA), in which the organizations worked with emergency services teams in the UK, Ireland, Denmark, and Iceland in order to evaluate potential use cases for drones, assess challenges, and develop recommendations therein.

Drawing upon the results of 60 call-outs in which the drone was deployed (those spanning: missing persons, fire, possible suicide, crowd safety, bomb threats, fuel and/or chemical spillages, fishing vessels adrift, animal rescue, and light aircraft crashes), the research concluded that whilst often not designed explicitly for such roles, drones have been used to:

  • quickly locate missing persons (covering a 1km² area within 20 minutes)
  • provide a valuable aerial perspective facilitating safe operations for both crews and members of the public
  • in the detection of “hot spots” through the use of thermal imaging cameras.

Given such advantages, both interest in and the deployment of drones by emergency services is growing.

In the UK, for example, while the West Midlands Fire Service were the first to operationally deploy the platforms in 2007, the number of operational forces using or planning to use drones, notably jumped to two thirds of fire services, and half of police forces in 2016, as Sky News reported.

In this vein, Sussex Police are now operating the largest drone project in the UK (comprised of 5 drones and 40 trained operators), with Devon and Cornwall Police following suit with the announcement of the “first 24-hour drone unit in the UK”.

The Skybound Rescuer Project

Despite the growing interest in the drone as an emergency services tool – Gemma Alcock of The Skybound Rescuer Project, an organization founded to bring clarity to educate the search and rescue community about the value of drones, notes that many of the drones marketed to the emergency services sector have simply been “transferred” to this market with little or no adaptation, rather than being designed specifically for it.

The Skybound Rescuer Project, then, has stepped up – seeking to provide resources and action plans to get SAR drones airborne. In highlighting the importance of this goal, The Skybound Rescuer team released this video, demonstrating their vision of the drone as a rescue tool.

Attending the Rescue Drone Awareness Course

Seeking to roll this out, The Skybound Rescuer Project has introduced a ‘Rescue Drone Awareness’ course.

Running their first course on 6th April 2017 at Popham Airfield in Hampshire, I was lucky enough to be in attendance.

Bringing together participants from UK Fire and Rescue, Search and Rescue, and the Police, this training course was billed as “a one-day workshop for managers and tacticians to gain an understanding of this rapidly emerging new technology “.

It aimed at equipping participants with an understanding of how to evaluate or plan for the purchase of a small drone and the associated equipment, what questions to ask manufacturers ahead of purchase or lease, and what training and regulatory requirements are applicable therein.

The course was a fast-paced and intensive foray through the contemporary civilian drone landscape, covering: terminology, drone categorisation, tailored capability reviews, a technical overview of payload features and capabilities, regulatory requirements, best practice and risk mitigation, factors impacting and limiting operations, and key questions for practitioners to pose to manufacturers ahead of purchasing or leasing a drone.

As pictured, the course also included a live-flying demonstration, allowing participants to see the drone in action, as well as understanding the necessary steps prior to becoming airborne.

Photo credit: Anna Jackman

In participating in this course, what struck me was the preparation necessitated in realizing a future in which the drone is a “welcome addition to the emergency service toolkit”.

Recognizing the value of drones in emergency services

That said, the value of such platforms to the emergency services is increasingly being recognized.

This can be evidenced by both the dramatic increase in the use of drones in a range of short-term emergencies and disaster response situations globally, as highlighted in Up in the Air: A Global Estimate of Non-Violent Drone Use 2009-2015, book published by the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace StudiesUniversity of San Diego.

It’s also evidenced by the growing partnerships forming between commercial parties and the emergency services sector, including:

The emergency services sector, then, appears to be living up to its European Commission designation as a key civilian UAV application market.

What emergency services should watch over

As has been widely noted within the sector, however, strides forward remain bound to legitimate concerns that surround drone usage more widely.

As is frequently documented in the media, drones are associated with risk: whether through close-calls with manned aircraft, their enrolment in inappropriate surveillance, unsafe flights, irresponsible stunts, or as platforms utilised in the illegal transportation of contraband.

As such, there remains an ongoing tension between the drone as both, simultaneously, an operational resource and a potentially recklessly or maliciously-employed commercially-available device.

In an environment in which the drone can be viewed negatively then, it remains particularly important for emergency services seeking to leverage and safely deploy such technology to adhere to and challenge the limits of relevant regulation, develop and implement best practice protocol, conduct risk assessment and mitigation, clearly demarcate their platforms and operational sites, and engage with the community and public more widely in showcasing this potentially lifesaving technology.


Dr Anna Jackman, the author of the above article, is a Lecturer at Royal Holloway, University of London. Her research has involved fieldwork with a range of drone users, regulators, and industry practitioners. Anna is interested in understanding both how and why different operational communities deploy drones, as well as the mechanisms through which the platforms are governed and sold more widely. She can be contacted via Twitter @ahjackman.

Drone Pilot Ground School Launches STEM Scholarship for High School Students

Drone Pilot Ground School Launches STEM Scholarship for High School Students

High-School-STEM-Scholarship-for-Aspiring-Commercial-Drone-Pilots

Drone Pilot Ground School recently launched a scholarship to support U.S. high school students who want to become certified commercial drone pilots.


Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics or STEM, is a curriculum, based on the idea of educating students in four specific disciplines in an often ‘hands-on’ approach.

The High School STEM Scholarship for Aspiring Commercial Drone Pilots provides free access to Drone Pilot Ground School, a leading remote test prep course for the FAA’s Part 107 exam, and will also pay for Part 107 test fees (up to $150) for the first 100 students to take the test.

The idea for the scholarship first came from Alan Perlman, CEO and founder of Drone Pilot Ground School, and Matt Ernst, founder of the Taft Drone Club at the Robert A.Taft Information Technology High School in Cincinnati, Ohio.

The Taft Drone Club uses drones for education, and has recently received a grant for $100,000 from the state of Ohio to support his efforts in STEM education using drones.

This new, first of its kind scholarship for high school students aims at supporting young people trying to break into the drone industry while also helping spread the use of drones in STEM education.

“We know the drone industry has the potential for creating new jobs for young people, and can help students get excited about STEM subjects. Providing a scholarship to interested, qualified high school students just seemed like a natural outgrowth of the support we’ve given the students at Taft High.”

said Perlman.

One of the primary motivators for Matt Ernst forming his club was to offer his students opportunities for making a good living. As drones get cheaper – with plenty of mini-drones under $100 to try out and learn on, and prosumer models selling for under $5,000 – and as drone applications proliferate, the potential for high school students to create a foundation for future careers in the drone industry seems strong to him.

More and more, drones are being used to help students learn – and get excited about – STEM subjects in middle, high, and even elementary school

Across the U.S. drones have become a part of robotics classes, coding classes, and even lessons on longitude and latitude. New platforms like DroneBlocks actually provide curricula materials for educators who want to use drones in the classroom, and drone manufacturers like Parrot have launched specialized educational programmes based on drones.

The drone industry itself is growing, and there promises to be new jobs on the horizon for drone pilots who hold a remote pilot license, from aerial cinematography to work in agriculture, forestry, mapping, and much more (even if a recent survey by Skylogic Research debunked the media hype about drones, showing for example that 75% of aerial business providers in the U.S. perform one to five projects only per month).

About the Scholarship

The High School STEM Scholarship for Aspiring Commercial Drone Pilots was launched to support high school students ages 16 and up who are serious about becoming certified drone pilots by helping them prepare for the FAA’s Part 107 test.

An additional goal is to help further the use of drones in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education.

Scholarship recipients get free access to Drone Pilot Ground School‘s remote test prep course for the FAA’s Part 107 test (value of $299), and the first 100 students to take the test will have their test fee covered (up to $150), for a total value of approximately $450.

Who’s eligible?

Eligible students must:

  • Be at least 16 years old
  • Be currently enrolled in high school
  • Live in the U.S.

How many students can apply?

There is an unlimited number of scholarships available, but only the first 100 students accepted will also have their Part 107 testing fee covered.

What is the deadline?

There is no deadline – applicants will be accepted on a rolling, case-by-case basis.

You can apply directly on the scholarship page.

When Will Autonomy Be The New Economy?

When Will Autonomy Be The New Economy?

An Post Drone by Skytango

The first autonomous drone parcel delivery in Ireland and the team behind it.

I was contacted in 2017 by the Irish National Postal Service, An Post, because their innovation people wanted to know more about drones – specifically autonomous deliveries.  At that time they wanted to demonstrate to their internal teams what might be possible with drone technology in the future.  Their suggestion was to fly from one side of a large An Post distribution centre to the other.  The project never got off the ground so to speak – but it got everyone thinking.

Almost a year later I was contacted again, this time by their marketing team and they wanted to make a video that talked about the future of parcel deliveries for the communities they serve.  This time, they asked if we could fly a drone from the Irish mainland to an Island about 5km off the coast.  Ireland is a small country, and you can already get a letter or package anywhere overnight, but there are islands and remote places that might one day be best served with drones and this was to be the theme of the video. This was a project that was primarily a PR stunt but not singularly PR as it also had elements of R & D. And therein lies the rub. Marketing requires quick results and R&D requires failure, time and money. But we explored the possibilities.

Skytango was a one stop shop for three reasons:
1.   We are an authority on drone operations and knew the people we needed to pull together for a project of this nature.
2.   This was a project that needed to be compliant in its execution and it’s what Skytango is about.
3.   We know how to make videos and the value of PR.

View from the back of the Clare Island Ferry

With that in mind, we settled on an Island off the coast of Co. Mayo as the destination for Ireland’s first parcel delivery by drone.  But before we accepted the challenge, we traveled to County Mayo and did a recce of Roonagh pier and Clare Island and located suitable launch and landing sites. From a compliance perspective, the airspace is Class G – unrestricted for drone use up to 400 feet and it is not over a congested area. There are no roads or people out at sea to fly over.  We had the co-operation of the Coast Guard, the Clare Island Ferry Company and Mayo County Council. In our view, there was no obvious requirement to involve the Aviation Authority because of location and methodology.

So after some deliberation,  we accepted the challenge and told An Post that we could make their promotional video as well as get the drone across autonomously, staying within rules, regulations and insurance restrictions. It all had to be done by the book.

Clare Island Pier

The plan we devised was simple -make sure the weather was good, put me and a heavy lift pilot in a RIB and chase the drone across the channel as it flew autonomously between waypoints, ready to take control of the rig in the event it lost its way. Using this method, we remained within 50ft of the drone and in line of sight at all times – completely within license parameters. A beyond visual line of sight – BVLOS or even an extended visual line of sight – EVLOS operation would have needed longer preparations, more personnel and the involvement of the Aviation Authority and our timeline and budget didn’t stretch that far, but we could still pull off an autonomous delivery our way.

So what could go wrong?  Turns out – quite a few things!  Even though we really did nothing that was technically amazing (those of you immersed in the business of drones know of their capabilities), pulling it all together proved to be a lot of work and took the spirit of a whole team of people to make it happen and some of those spirits, including my own, waned toward the end. The custom drone build proved difficult under the time constraints, insurance surprises lurked because it wasn’t ‘off the shelf’ and sourcing drone parts was time consuming as most everything needed to be imported. As time marched on and deadlines were missed because of technical issues or weather, the pressure mounted.

We decided to approach the project as two separate events. The first was the making of a promotional video. The second was the autonomous crossing. We had to make sure that at the very least, we had the footage to tell the story of what could be (#DeliveringTheFuture), before we sent the drone across, just in case it didn’t make the journey and ended up at the bottom of the Atlantic.  We had discussed the possibility of the drone failing mid crossing with An Post from the very first meeting – there was just no margin for error or nature and to their credit, they understood the risk. But as the client, they really wanted this to succeed. We all did.

So we started, full of enthusiasm. We set out to build a heavy lift, choosing a Gryphon Dynamics frame, mostly because it’s visually impressive and easy to brand.

Workshop Assembly

The vertical faces on the arms (rather than the carbon pipes) looked great wrapped and the Z frame also gave us the chance to seat a 3D printed box above the drone rather than below. It allowed better access for the postal operative and I had an idea of a shot where we could look down on the drone and actually see the box as it flew over the water beneath.  One shot that told the whole story.

Additionally, we chose a Pixhawk 2.1 controller  – capable, reliable and within budget!  However, in reality it proved to be a very finicky piece of kit to set up (if you dig deeper into forums this piece of information is available) and needs a lot of time to play with before it lives up to its reputation. One thing we didn’t have was a surplus of time. We stuck with it and eventually it got off the ground and seemed good.

Steve wearing his director’s hat with An Post’s Richard Miley as well as Keith Tracey and Niamh Talbot in the background looking on.

With the drone ready we could embark on Phase I. 

After several weeks of engineering and several more weeks of pre-production, our crew of 6 set off for County Mayo with the Green Machine in tow.

In the production van resided a RED Dragon, a case of Prime Lenses, a custom landing pad and other props and various pieces of equipment necessary for filming.

The West Coast of Ireland is breathtaking, but it’s not called the Wild Atlantic Way for nothing and Clare Island is situated smack bang in the middle, complete with its own micro climate. As we set up for the first crossing attempt over 5km of open water and measured winds at altitude on the day, we realized we had miscalculated the propulsion power necessary to make the crossing. 

When we ran the numbers on paper, it seemed we should have been able to get enough range and time running on the X4 with 4 U7 motors, but we very quickly realized that we had under propped the drone.  Could we have made it across on what we had?  Perhaps. But if we wanted the extra power margin (to be sure), we’d need to add another 22,000 milliamp battery, 4 more motors and bigger props. This weight increase posed a second problem. The original pilot, Keith, was licensed to fly up to 7.5kg. The new additions would bump the drone to circa 10kg. We would have to source another pilot licensed to fly the heavier rig. It was disappointing for us all, but in reality, we had plenty on our plate with the actual video production and that became the focus. Phase II would have to wait.

Keith Tracey soldering in his workshop

Rebuilt X8 test flight

Once the video production was complete, back at the bench  Phase II began.  Four extra motors, more batteries, bigger props and an increased gross takeoff weight meant we needed a new pilot with a different class of license. We put the feelers out in the community and found a pilot who fit the bill and was available.  By this time the budget had evaporated, but determination kicked in. 

We made the decision to put a safety net in place. Our second pilot had just taken possession of a heavy lift drone with a DJI A3 flight controller on board which was capable of the appropriate mission planning and he very kindly offered it as a back up.  It really took the pressure off knowing that everything didn’t rely on a single drone on the day. A lot of work had gone into making the green drone and it looked phenomenal.  The last thing we wanted was to put it to the ultimate test over open water and see it go down – project over, no record, no delivery!  

We arrived at Roonagh pier a few days later on Thursday July 5th with two drones, several cameras and a RIB (Rigid Inflatable Boat).  Clare Island Ferry Company, who run the ferry between Roonagh pier and Clare Island and who also own and operate the RIB, couldn’t have been more accommodating. Before we did any test flights, we took the RIB  ride over to the island to time the journey, test the sea state and to make sure the drone pilot could control the radio and sticks in a moving boat if it was necessary. We wanted to map the approach to the bay and secure the landing zone.

We returned to Roonagh Pier to carry out another of our safety flight tests. Given the winds at altitude and our planned boat speed of 20 knots, running out of battery margin was still a possibility, so we erred on the side of caution, transferred the parcel to the larger drone and flew it across, leaving the X8 on the pier to live another day and look good for branded photo opportunities.

Steve & Fearghus with his new DJI – our back up drone

Having planned the mission waypoints, we boarded the RIB and positioned it next to the drone on a private pier. The drone pilot started the pre-planned flight mission, and the drone climbed safely to 30 meters altitude, paused and then flew to the first preprogramed point adjacent to the RIB. From here both the drone and the RIB set off side by side towards the open water.

The drone remained within 50-100m of the RIB at all times as the pre-programmed mission was set to fly at the exact speed of the RIB i.e. 10 m/s which is 20 knots – a good clip for a big drone. While the drone could go faster, we wanted to stay well under control and this speed ensured that both rigs were in tandem with each other and if needed, the pilot could pause, stop, speed up or slow down the drone so it wouldn’t get out ahead.  A second pilot was on hand – me – as a spotter and as an emergency back up in the unlikely event something should happen to the actual pilot mid crossing and I had to press the ‘Home’ button. I got skillz 🙂 Another real consideration was our safety in the RIB.  We couldn’t go any faster on the boat without risking being bounced overboard.

Drone Mid Crossing

When the drone arrived at Clare Island, it came in over the bay, turned left, and was programmed to hold over the water while we made doubly sure the beach was locked down and there was no risk to anyone in the area.  After we got out of the RIB, we walked to the beach and manually brought the drone in for a soft landing.

One autonomous parcel delivery across 5km of open water in 11 minutes 20 secs.

An Post Tweet July 6th 2018

While it was gutsy putting a drone like that out over the sea,  I think the technical achievement of this project is not the whole point. Drones have been capable of flying Waypoint missions for quite some time.  There are many big companies putting millions into drone technology to do fully autonomous deliveries.  I know the tremendous work going into safety and reliability – and we haven’t contributed to that R&D in any major way.  But what we have done, in my view, is just as important.  We broke a record, achieved the first autonomous parcel delivery in Ireland and most importantly – we started a conversation.

We were able to do this without the involvement of the Aviation Authority because it was Line of Sight and tasked by responsible, licensed individuals who have been flying drones commercially in Ireland for several years, who motivated, who are not reckless, who want to see the industry advance safely and who innovated and achieved ‘a first’  – and we’re proud of that.

At the end of the day, no matter who is flying these machines or how advanced the technology, drones will not achieve their potential unless we win the hearts and minds of the communities they fly over. Companies like An Post have to figure out how to integrate them into their business, and help communities accept their presence by utilizing tools that enhance safety and transparency. The fact that we were able to fly an ‘off-the-shelf’ (albeit a very expensive shelf) drone this distance autonomously is testament to how far the technology has come.  That it made a few people a little nervous, is understandable. This project was designed by An Post to get attention –  and do it in a way that was inspiring and hopeful for the future use of this technology.  We are happy with what we achieved, and have proven what can be done with some imagination, diligence to rules and regulations, two guys, and a RIB.  It was nerve racking looking at the drone out over open water with nowhere to land if it needed to get out of the air. It left me with a profound sense of what it’s actually going to  take to make this a daily, regular occurrence in all types of weather.  The companies and people building for that day and institutions like NASA & SESAR developing UTM (Unmanned Traffic Management) have my deepest respect and admiration. But as good as things are today, we’re nowhere near ready for prime-time and fully autonomous operations at scale are still in the R & D stages.

Project Credits:
Lead Companies: Skytango | Aerial Filming Ireland
Producer: Susan Talbot
Director: Steven Flynn
Production Crew
Associate Producer: Niamh Talbot
Production Assistant: Anne Tracey
Camera: Conor Lally | Move Crew
Aerial Cinematography|3D Modelling |Stills: Mike Guckian
Editor: Steven Flynn
Music: Audio Network
Equipment Rental: Film Equipment Hire
Drone Crew
Drone ‘Postman Padraig’ Engineer|Pilot: Keith Tracey
Drone Crossing from Roonagh to Clare Island:
Mission planner & Chief Pilot: Fearghus Foyle | Aerial Eye
Spotter: Steven Flynn
Runner: Aidan Flynn
Special Thanks To:
Heavy Lift Consultants: Slawomier Zielinski | Declan Mullen
Regulation Consultant: Gearoid O’Briain
Brian O’Grady – Clare Island Ferry Company
Roie McCann – The Lighthouse, Clare Island
Orlagh Heverin – Mayo County Council
James & Kate – RIB Pilots
Ralph James|Lou Fine – IAA

Steve Flynn is a licensed drone pilot, an Emmy award-winning cinematographer, and CEO of Skytango (and dad to Aidan).