A four-part series exploring when and how drone technology can be considered and utilized in place of or in addition to other potential solutions.
What does your technical toolbox look like? Does it contain a single piece of technology that is designed to solve all of your problems? Or more realistically, is it a mish-mash of semi-useful tech tools that are ultimately designed to create a collaborative approach for a given project or problem?
For most, the answer is the latter, and it’s why our attempts to compare what it means to utilize a drone versus a manned aircraft, satellite and terrestrial LiDAR only partially works. Which means, it doesn’t really work. It makes more sense to consider all of these tools as solutions that can be utilized side by side, and focus on what each tool provides. It makes more sense to consider how they can and should complement one another, rather than think of any of them as the single approach that will solve any and all problems.
More and more people are coming around to the notion of this kind of holistic approach, but doing so is often a result of the comfort that many have with these traditional approaches. For many, drone technology represents something new that they need to consider in terms of this integration, and that makes the considerations around how new opportunities related to HALE (high-altitude long-endurance) aircraft should be approached.
There were many predictions around the HALE segment of the market coming alive this year, and there have definitely been developments that have backed up these predictions. Because HALE aircraft can stay airborne for weeks or even months, which is far longer than a multi-rotor or fixed-wing drone, the technology could provide users with a powerful option that is less expensive than manned aircraft and more reliable than satellite info.
The main difference between HALE aircraft and the various other approaches we’ve detailed is that the specific relevance this technology will have on the commercial sector is still unclear. Many believe HALE will need a lot of support from government agencies to make the jump to the commercial sector, but as an illustration of the enthusiasm that exists to make this happen, there are already companies focused on providing renewable energy solutions that are designed to power these devices. These developments have many people considering where and how this segment of the technology will be able to impact the commercial market.
“Conventional drones and high-altitude aircraft are complimentary in nature. While they may overlap in some areas, the uses of both kinds of aircraft are highly specialized,” said Marc Kegalaers, Co-Owner and Chief Executive Officer at UniFly.
The kinds of tasks on the horizon for HALE are creating more opportunities for both HALE and conventional drones. Partnerships should help push the boundaries of what is technologically possible across the world, and allow organizations to consider how to solve technical issues in a whole new light.“One benefit of the technology will be temporary and even permanent infrastructure such as telecommunications, making it possible to provide Internet worldwide,” Kegalaers told Commercial UAV News. “Especially in areas where local infrastructure is lacking, or non-existent, great humanitarian progress can be made through HALE use. For instance, in case of disasters, HALE technology can greatly facilitate rescue operations. The first thing to go in case of emergency is the internet and telecommunications.”
Transport over very long distances will also be facilitated by the cooperation between drones and HALE. Additionally, boosts in productivity and profits resulting from efficiencies created through HALE and drones will impact traditional retail sectors, which will continue to lose market share. However, these technological improvements will ultimately be good for consumers, good for those in the drone and HALE sectors, and also speed up development of both technologies.
“Online shopping is even more popular. The e-commerce share of total global retail sales is projected to reach 15.5% by 2021. Bypassing the traditional retailers more and more, customers shop directly on Chinese websites,” Kegalaers said. “Right now, there is a large gap between possible transports from the Far East to Western customers. Either via airfreight, which is quick but expensive, or via container ship which is cheaper but takes up to six weeks.”
This is a critical consideration because HALE aircraft can fill the gap between traditional transport via sea or manned airfreight. However, it’s the scientific uses of HALE, such as atmospheric sampling, and also for defense purposes such as surveillance, that might help to improve this technology faster than others. The challenge for all of these applications really comes down to getting HALE aircraft to the correct height.
“Typical commercial (manned) flights cruise at up to 35,000 feet, just above the troposphere,” Kegalaers explained. “HALE flights have been tested at 45,000 and above, well inside the stratosphere and far above the rest of the traditional air traffic. Given their diverse nature and incredible speed range (with a possible maximum speed of up to 12,000 km/h) HALE flights need a dedicated airspace with dynamic flow management.”
Regulatory and technological considerations will play a big part in where and how these HALE aircraft are able to operate, but the potential in retail and research underscores how many different ways this segment will make an impact. Those applications don’t even consider how it will provide an alternative to traditional drones and satellite approaches though.
Conventional drones cover a smaller area, while satellites are less mobile and flexible to use, which means the HALE segment could provide real value. Rather than it being a competitive relationship, conventional drones and HALE are not only working together, they are helping each other get better at what they do.
“One of the key areas is battery efficiency and flight length. For instance, HALE drones can be solar-powered, which means they only need to land for maintenance. This means their flight length is exponentially longer, up to several months,” Kegalaers said. “Moreover, HALE can be grounded for maintenance and updates, and this is not possible with satellites.”
The potential of the technology is evident, but as we’ve seen with drone technology as a whole, the road from “potential” to “reality” contains many challenges, many of which are associated with permissions and regulations. It’s part of the reason that some aren’t as sanguine about the continuing relevance of HALE, at least in some areas.
“Currently, UAS has improved in such a way to have long endurance flight with no need to be at a high altitude,” said Noah Ruiz, owner of Skynetwest.” In all honesty, I don’t think there is going to be a space for operations using HALE in the Commercial Sector. HALE operations are only going to be able to continue if the FAA becomes more laxed on BVLOS operations. For HALE to become widely adopted in the commercial sector, it’s going to need government help.”
While multi-rotor and fixed-wing drones might be better at capturing highly detailed images than HALE aircraft, the fact that HALE aircraft can stay in the air to provide continuous and detailed support and information creates a whole new value proposition for users. It’s a value proposition that is inherently different than the ones created by manned aircraft and satellites, but that underscores why a holistic approach is the only one that makes sense.
It’s fun to make a direct comparison between drones and variety of other approaches to gathering information that are and soon will be available. Ultimately though, the merits of a given tool need to be considered in relation to the project or job. Doing so is the only way that users will be able to make informed decisions on whether it makes sense to use drones, aircraft that are orbiting the earth or any tool that is or will be in someone’s technical toolbox.