Members of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee visited Imperial’s Aerial Robotics Laboratory on Thursday.
Committee Chair Norman Lamb was joined by fellow MPs Bill Grant, Stephen Metcalfe and former Universities and Science Minister Sam Gyimah, as well as Committee staff members. The visit was part of their inquiry into recreational and commercial drone use.
MPs were welcomed by the Provost, Professor Ian Walmsley, who introduced them to Dr Mirko Kovac, Director of the Aerial Robotics Laboratory. He then presented on Imperial’s work on drone technology and the challenges facing his team and the wider sector.
Dr Kovac outlined his research on the usage of drones for digital infrastructure systems, including diagnostics and repairs, both in the air and underwater. In response to questions from Sam Gyimah and Stephen Metcalfe, Dr Kovac explained that the use of drones for these purposes is widely accepted in the scientific community.
Bill Grant asked about the role of drones in agriculture, to which Dr Kovac responded that they can currently collect data, but that the next step will be carrying out tasks such as repairs or applying herbicides. Dr Kovac also explained the difference between mechanical and control intelligence within drone technology and argued that scientists on both sides must collaborate to maximise future progress.
Inspired by the natural world
The lessons learnt from the natural world also featured prominently in the presentation. Drones’ crash resilience properties were being developed, in part inspired by bees’ crash resilience as they land from flight. The ability to land safely is crucial for drones which could be used, for example, to repair pipelines in dangerous conditions.
The diving techniques of various aquatic mammals have been analysed while building ‘aquatic micro aerial vehicles’ – drones which can both fly in the air and float on water. The goal is for these drones to be able to assess mechanical failings underwater much more quickly than human divers could do so.
With these breakthroughs on the horizon, Sam Gyimah asked about the commercialisation strategy underpinning the laboratory’s work. Dr Kovac outlined his team’s work in this area, but also explained the importance of blue-sky research funding alongside narrower, industry-led projects.
Interaction is the new frontier
Dr Kovac emphasised the importance of focusing on drones’ interactions with other objects and people when considering their future applications. He described collaborating with the Dyson Robots Lab on vision-based robotics and showed a video of a drone’s field trials, detecting moving cars. Imperial students then demonstrated for MPs a drone autonomously flying and landing over an object.
Dr Kovac explained why interaction is so key for the future of aerial robotics. Within the next decade, he predicted, drones would be a key element of delivery systems – from online shopping parcels to emergency blood or organ donations – as well as being used in many other industries, such as surveying. He also outlined his vision for offshore infrastructure drones, which would ‘live’ autonomously on-site, running diagnostics and making repairs when necessary.
Norman Lamb asked Dr Kovac what changes he’d like to see in the regulatory framework around drones. Dr Kovac outlined four priorities: license exemptions for universities; more readily available testing spaces; regulation around drones’ interaction; and a stronger focus on the mechanics of drones.
There was consensus that, as Dr Kovac described, current regulation had created a “bottleneck” in terms of testing and advancing drone technology. MPs seemed sympathetic to the idea of exempting universities from commercial operator regulations around drones and Bill Grant asked about the Swiss model of providing temporarily unregulated airspace for drone testing, an idea Dr Kovac praised.
The Science and Technology’s Committee inquiry into recreational and commercia drone use is currently taking oral evidence. It will then produce a report with recommendations for the Government, which in turn is expected to bring forward a ‘Drones Bill’ later this year.