It takes preparation to invent the drones of the future, define their uses and understand the risks involved. As the use of drones in our airspace continues to become more diverse and more intense, it is vital for us to ask the right questions to ensure their safe, reliable, smart development. The researchers at ENAC and ISAE-SUPAERO invited their academic colleagues to discuss the issues and to take stock of the technological and regulatory progress made, along with industries, start-ups, entrepreneurs, local decision-makers and representatives of the field’s regulatory authority.
It was also a day for taking stock after the first year of work at the Research Federation set up by ISAE-SUPAERO, ENAC and ONERA on this topic. The roundtables on the challenges facing the sector and the new uses of civilian drones were an opportunity to discuss the technological and regulatory improvements needed for sharing airspace in total safety.
Jean-Marc Moschetta, Professor of Aerodynamics at ISAE-SUPAERO and co-organizer of this Symposium explained that “the current challenge no longer concerns piloting a drone, but rather flying safely and dealing with imponderables. Risk assessment and improving drone safety will be a major challenge over the next five years. This will be a key to economic growth in human activities that use drones.”
All economic sectors are concerned with the use of drones and improving their reliability. Market needs focus on micro air vehicles for surveillance, inspection and observation missions. The presentation area for innovative companies in the drone sector was representative of this emerging market. From Air Marine to Delair, not to mention Néoptera and Boréal or Donecle, some fifteen exhibitors presented their companies, products and lines of research to the audience. Drones are making their way into all business, industrial, agricultural and environmental sectors. For these applications, innovation and research must be multidisciplinary and will concern the reliability of the flying machine as well as software, algorithms and embedded engineering. For Donecle, Delair and Diodon, gathering and processing data are just as important as flight mechanics for the inspection of infrastructures, the prevention of forest fires, agricultural treatments, observations of mineral deposits and the interpretation of territorial surveillance.
Alongside these entrepreneurs, pride of place was also given to research, with projects for drones capable of flying on Mars to act as the remote eyes and brain of a Mars exploration rover. Studies on drones between bio-mimicry and bio-inspiration are also in the news. To deal with the problem of on-board energy, researchers are looking into the direct extraction of energy using forces that come from the variations in pressure in air currents to reproduce flight techniques used by birds for environmentally-friendly long-range flights.
In fact, some birds such as the albatross can achieve exceptional flight times and ranges by using air currents on flat surfaces. Two PhD programs at ISAE-SUPAERO (V. Bonnin, 2015; N. Gavrilovic, 2018) provided new information on the physical mechanism consisting in extracting energy from air currents in order to implement this strategy on fixed-wing drones. A potential 40% gain was identified to increase a drone’s range by applying flight strategies inspired by the albatross and other species of birds and insects.
This day encouraged contacts between researchers and post-graduates, start-ups and small businesses working to invent the drone of the future and to make this revolution happen. It was also an opportunity to develop and integrate robust, safe artificial intelligence functions adaptable to future drone systems. “Half of our R&D is dedicated to artificial intelligence” announced Bastien Mancini, General Manager of Delair.
New tools and methodologies for design and qualification are coming. They will provide safer behaviors and ensure compliance with ethical rules such as those in the aviation regulations that will lead to certifiable artificial intelligence for drones.
The revolution must be collaborative for us to define new concepts to deal with innovative uses of drones.