Well, it looks like people have had enough of it. In a tweet on Tuesday morning, the UK government’s Department for Transport announced the introduction of new powers for police to seize and search suspicious drones, as well as new airport exclusion zones and safety measures.
You can read the full announcement, which comes following a 5000-people strong consultation, on the government’s website. They’ve summarised the key points as follows:
– police to be given additional powers to land, seize and search drones
– government to work on expanded use of technology to detect and repel drones in sites like airports and prisons
– exclusion zone extended around airports where drones are banned from flying
– from November 2019 drone operators will be required by law to register
“There is no question but that lessons have to be learned from what happened at Gatwick,” Transport Secretary Chris Grayling said in a statement on Monday. “Passengers have to be able to travel without fear of their trips being disrupted by malicious drone use.
“Airports must be prepared to deal with incidents of this type, and the police need the proper powers to deal with drone offences.”
Like many cliches, “flying under the radar” has a literal, real-world history. As the new object-detection technology proliferated in the years after World War II, military pilots knew it had trouble seeing things at low altitudes, where buildings and hills severely limit its range. And so pilots would hug the terrain, flying beneath the radio waves that would detect their presence.
For the most part, that low-level limitation has been tolerable (unless, of course, you were the target of the aerial attack in question), and hasn’t slowed the growth or hurt the safety record of the airline industry that came to rely on the systems for safe passage through crowded airspace. But aviation is bracing for a variety of twists and turns that will change what flies where—and how we look at it. Drones will cross the skies delivering pizza, coffee, or sneakers. Flying cars will whisk passengers across town. Automated search and rescue vehicles will fan out to find lost hikers.
As compelling as these visions are, the vehicles can’t stay invisible to the air-traffic-control systems that need to track them and keep everybody safe. Though conventional mechanical radar systems—those large dishes that rotate in endless circles—will still form the backbone of aviation tracking systems for the foreseeable future, new tools will have to help fill in the blind spots.
And so Raytheon set its sights a bit lower. The defense contractor has developed a low-power radar it says can fill in the gaps missed by conventional systems. Instead of having single units that sit on towers or mountaintops, spinning and scanning up to 200 miles out, Raytheon proposes distributing smaller digital systems, en masse, across the landscape.
The one-square-meter units—think of a big, white, upright pizza box—use active electronically scanned array technology that is more precise and more tunable than what’s in use now. And when spread across the terrain on cell towers, buildings, and hilltops, they should be able to track aircraft at much lower altitudes.
The scanners can monitor large swaths of real estate or zero in on specific targets, says Michael Dubois, Raytheon’s lead engineer on the program. “This ‘agile-beam’ concept allows you to redirect a pencil-like beam to follow a target, whether it’s a flying car or an airplane or a drone,” Dubois says. And, while conventional radar systems can only track a few targets, these systems can keep their eyes on many. You can do that with higher resolution and much faster update rates, the engineer added, since the beam never rotates away from the target.”
Active electronically scanned arrays are already in use in modern fighter jets, including the F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Lightning II. Here, the technology should be much less expensive, and since it’s distributed, won’t pick up as much radio frequency interference from buildings, weather, or land masses. Units can be networked together to increase resolution and more precisely filter out that clutter. This could be key to tracking small drones and giving autonomous air vehicles enhanced situational awareness at low altitudes. And it has a few tricks in its arsenal.
“You can track aircraft, but you can also leverage it for microscale weather analysis, including 3-D wind information, and down to extremely localized tracking that could help future air vehicles as well as the general public,” Dubois says. “When you get into really small areas, you can even help, for instance, hobbyists flying model rockets or airplanes or drone operators working to ensure a clear path for their own flights.”
Low-power radar networks will likely be one of a variety of solutions for future air mobility, with another key being ADS-B, the increasingly ubiquitous system that uses GPS data to automatically broadcast an aircraft’s position. ADS-B has its own limitations: To work, it must be installed on the aircraft in question. It can’t monitor weather or look for birds. So radar still matters.
In a recent demonstration for government agencies, Raytheon’s system actively tracked flights within 20 miles from a single unit, and provided detailed enough data to “guide a pilot to touchdown with surgical precision,” the company says. The low-power radar technology—now actually in its third generation in the development pipeline—can be ready by mid-2019, with large-scale production following that. Raytheon promises costs similar to or better than full-size radar systems covering the same area.
Government agencies running air-traffic-control networks will likely be the main target for this system to start, but the new tech could also appeal to the military and industry customers. In the meantime, Raytheon is working to develop all the possible applications for the tech, so that, one day, flying under the radar will be nothing more than a tired cliche.
The opening ceremony of any Olympics provides pageantry at a global scale, a celebration that, at its best, can create moments every bit as indelible as the games themselves. For the Pyeongchang Games, those watching the curtain-raiser at home also witnessed a sight never seen before: a record-setting 1,218 drones joined in a mechanical murmuration.
Drone shows like the one on display at the Pyeongchang Games have taken place before; you may remember the drone army that flanked Lady Gaga at last year's Super Bowl. But the burst of drones that filled the sky Friday night—or early morning, depending on where in the world you watched—comprised four times as many fliers. Without hyperbole, there's really never been anything like it.
As at the Super Bowl, the Pyeongchang drone show comes compliments of Intel's Shooting Star platform, which enables a legion of foot-long, eight ounce, plastic and foam quadcopters to fly in sync, swooping and swirling along an animator's prescribed path.
"It's in essence technology meeting art," says Anil Nanduri, general manager of Intel's drone group.
Intel's Shooting Star drones are about a foot-long, weigh eight ounces, and can fly in formation for up to 20 minutes.|||
Also like the Super Bowl, the opening ceremony production you'll see on your TV—or streaming device—was prerecorded. That's less of a cheat than an insurance policy; tiny drones can only handle so much abuse, and Pyeongchang is a cold and windy city.
Intel had planned to produce a live version of the show for the Pyeongchang opening ceremony crowd, but had to scrap it at the last minute due to what the company describes as "impromptu logistical changes." Television audiences, though, were always only going to see the prerecorded version of the record-setting aerial spectacle. And the Intel plans to lean into live shows throughout the week, with a separate, 300-drone act expected to take off nightly for the medal ceremonies.
In previous outings, the drone fleet has taken forms like a waving American flag backing Gaga, or a twirling Christmas tree at Disney's Starbright Holidays. The Pyeongchang production, as you might expect, includes more Olympic-themed animations, like a gyrating snowboarder and those iconic interlocking rings, all made possible by careful coding, and the four billion color combinations enabled by onboard LEDs. (If you missed the livestream, you can catch the whole thing on the NBC broadcast Friday night.)
"In order to create a real and lifelike version of the snowboarder with more than 1,200 drones, our animation team used a photo of a real snowboarder in action to get the perfect outline and shape in the sky," says Natalie Cheung, Intel's general manager of drone light shows.
As it turns out, bring 1,218 of those drones into harmony doesn't present much more of a logistical challenge than 300, thanks to how the Shooting Star platform works. After animators draw up the show using 3-D design software, each individual drone gets assigned to act as a kind of aerial pixel, filling in the 3-D image against the night sky.
And while more drones does provide a broader canvas, it perhaps more importantly affords a better sense of depth.
"What you have is a complete three-dimensional viewing space, so you can create lots of interesting effects and transformations when you use that full capability," says Nanduri. "It's aways easy to fly more drones for an animation and increase the perspective."
With the animation in place, each drone operates independently, communicating with a central computer rather than any of the drones around it. Just before takeoff, that computer also decides which drone plays what role, based on the battery levels and GPS strength of each member of the fleet.
The drones can typically fly for a little under 20 minutes, given the limitations of current lithium-ion battery technology. They also generally launch at a bit of a distance from the actual performance area, cutting showtime even tighter. But those handicaps apply equally to any drone show. Pyeongchang presented unique challenges all its own.
Making It Work
As the opening ceremonies live snafu underscores, getting these drones capable of flying in extreme conditions involves some fine-tuning of a Shooting Star drone design that has otherwise remained fairly consistent over the last two years.
"When you have these multi-rotors, you're spinning these blades, it's all about how much lift and thrust they can get," says Nanduri. "You have blades spinning in different directions, and it's self-balancing. When you have high winds, you basically have to counter that, especially depending on the direction of the wind. You need more power."
Intel didn't physically change the shape of the Shooting Star propellers. But after simulating various wind scenarios, the team did tweak the design of the drones' rotor cages for a tolerance boost to help keep the craft stable in windier conditions.
As for the cold, that impacts not so much the drones themselves, but the batteries that charge them. Temperatures on site will dip as low as 11 degrees Fahrenheit overnight, topping out at just above freezing.
'It's aways easy to fly more drones for an animation and increase the perspective.'
Anil Nanduri, Intel
"Lithium-ion batteries and cold don't really go together," says Nanduri. To that end, the Intel team tested Shooting Star performance in Finland to make sure the drones still flew as expected—and for the length of time required for the Olympic shows. But more importantly, they fine-tuned their storage systems to limit any potential damage that a deep freeze might cause. They'll also have weather monitoring and air traffic stations on-site to make the final call.
Eventually, Intel has ambitions for its drone squad to graduate from performers to professionals. A fleet of fully programmable quadcopters has compelling implications for, say, search and rescue operations. Unlocking that potential would require a regulatory overhaul, though, one that doesn't seem likely in the immediate term.
For now, however, light show spectaculars seem like a fine way for Shooting Star drones to earn their keep. Especially now that they've had their moment at the biggest show on earth.