Up in the air

Chad Sparks, director of Strategic Campaigns & Business Development at Bell Flight, talks about drone technology and the key role that it will be playing in the UAE's smart city vision.



By Rohma Sadaqat

Published: Mon 21 Dec 2020, 5:07 PM

Tell us a bit about Bell Flight, and the history of the company.

The way I would describe Bell is fundamentally as an 85-year-old startup. We have 85 years of experience in aviation, but still have the agility to adapt to a new and changing world around us. If we look back at our history, we have been pioneers in every single age of aerospace and aviation progress. This goes back to the first breaking of the sound barrier with the Bell X1, to being a part of the first commercial turban rotorcraft and even pioneering the tiltrotor age.

Now we find ourselves at the precipice of a completely new age of aviation with more electrification, autonomous systems, and automation in the world today.

How important is mobility to the smart city vision of the UAE? How much progress has been made in concepts such as flying taxis and delivery drones?

Mobility is a key element in helping cities progress towards the future. This is not just air mobility, but the creation of an entire ecosystem of mobility that helps transport people, data, and goods within a city environment. A smart city is not just about collecting data, but also about how that city uses it to create intelligence and efficiencies for their community and citizens.

Mobility is a cornerstone in visions of smart cities, for countries like the UAE, where there is opportunity to create and innovate and can be considered an important centre point in the world today.

When mentioning flying taxis and delivery drones, initial progress has been made. That being said however, it is good to be pragmatic about where the industry is today especially since most of the products we see are only concepts and early technology demonstrations. While there is definitely potential as the industry develops, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done in order to make sure ideas like flying taxis are serving a community need and solving the right economic principles of those communities.

For delivery drones, significant progress has been made for small unmanned systems in terms of basic platforms and capabilities. There are still some limitations to them operationally, in terms of where and how you can fly them as well as economically, to ensure these vehicles are actually cost-effective beyond just providing a time sensitive service.

Bell sees a future for delivery drones at a larger scale. We continue to push the envelope with our Autonomous Pod Transport. With our recent demonstration with NASA for the NASA SIO activity, Bell executed a Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) flight in Dallas-Fort Worth airspace utilising detect and avoid (DAA) technologies. This activity, and others like it, will collect data which will be used to support future standards development and certification guidelines.

We have already seen some very successful cases of drone use, especially during the months of the Covid-19 lockdown. What is the next big leap that we can expect to see in this field?

For drones, there was definitely progress made during the Covid-19 environment that proved helpful, such as issuing warnings and cleaning streets. There has also been great work done with small drones when it's come to photogrammetry, in particular for inspection work, monitoring crops, inventory management and other outdoor applications.

The next big leap is moving towards larger vehicles for more significant logistics movement, while also expanding into missions that unlock beyond the visible line of sight. Ideally it will involve taking on larger missions, with larger payloads at longer ranges and distances. Most smaller drones are operational in controlled environments, whereas the drones of tomorrow will need to have a larger footprint in terms of how they are used and their capabilities.

What would you say are some of the biggest challenges when it comes to the application of drone technology in the UAE and the region?

The biggest challenges the industry faces today, not only in the UAE, but globally are inconsistent regulatory standards that are constantly evolving. All over the world, the different regulatory bodies are doing their very best to adapt to this new, emerging technology, albeit without a consistent set of rules on how these vehicles are built, designed and operated. Ultimately the lack of congruency between the different entities runs the risk of slowing the entire industry down, making it difficult to adapt from one market to the next, and enjoy economies of scale for drone applications.

Looking ahead, what are you most excited about when it comes to drones and drone technology?

When I look at drones and drone technology, I'm most excited for what the possibilities can be. I regularly think back to the first urban helicopters that Bell was able to bring to market and when that happened there were already a known set of applications. While there were a whole set of use cases, people hadn't even begun to imagine how we would utilise the technology. Those use cases then spawned into emergency medical services, offshore oil and gas, para public applications and many more.

I feel that we are at a very similar point in time with drones and drone technology that we can imagine a variety of use cases and missions.

What excites me is, what have we not thought of yet? What are the ways this technology is going to be applied that will bring even greater value to people in various communities in a meaningful way that is efficient and safe? I'm hopeful that we will one day be able to solve big societal problems with drone and drone technology such as food shortage or healthcare, really bringing about a positive impact on future generations.

 


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