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When drones are part of the smart city network

Drones are already being used to document accident scenes, support first responder activities and monitor construction sites, but they are poised to become an integral part of a smart city's network.

A smart city is built on data from sensors embedded throughout the city, according to Jason Nelson, the executive director of partnership engagement at the Smart Cities Council, an industry advisory group. “We see drones as being one of these potential citywide sensor networks” along with smart street lights, a city’s fleet vehicles and smartphones, he said in a Jan. 18 webcast.

Such drones will be able to provide situational awareness by inspecting infrastructure, tracktraffic and zoning and take fleet vehicles off the road.

Purvi Doshi, the senior public policy advisor for Airmap, said recent steps taken by the federal government to support unmanned aerial systems  could lead to them being easier to use.

The UAS Integration Pilot Program, Doshi said, “gives cities a chance to partner with major industry players who are trying to use drones in these complex cases … collect the data and that will inform the regulation.” This initiative includes the development of air traffic management systems that integrate drones into the national airspace.

The Federal Aviation Administration's work on standards for remote identification and tracking of drones will also make it easier for cities to integrate the devices.

Recommendations from an FAA committee regarding remote identification and tracking of UAS could be used by law enforcement to know who is flying and if they’re a safe flyer, Doshi said.

“I think that will make cities feel a lot more comfortable welcoming this technology into their communities,” she said.

Camillo Jose Taylor, a professor of computer and information science at the University of Pennsylvania, said technology advances will make the drones smarter, easier to use and more useful.

Researchers, including Taylor, have been working on drone autonomy over the past few years. Some tests have shown drones can successfully navigate without having any flight plans uploaded and without GPS.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Fast Lightweight Autonomy program aims to make lightweight, off-the-shelf air- or ground-based drones operate without human guidance, access to GPS or any datalinks going to or coming from the vehicle.

"We’ve still got quite a bit of work to do to enable full autonomy for the wide-ranging scenarios we tested, but I think the algorithms we’re developing could soon be used to augment existing GPS-dependent UAVs for some applications," DARPA FLA Program Manager JC Ledé said last year. "I think that kind of synergy between GPS-reliant systems and our new FLA capabilities could be very powerful in the relatively near future."

Taylor also highlighted the growing use of drones for infrastructure inspection. He has worked on using UAS to inspect tunnels in hydroelectric facilities -- tight spaces that are hard to access. In the past, inspections of these tunnels has required scaffolding to be built. A drone outfitted with camera and other sensors, though, can get the information needed for a sufficient inspection, he said.

Colin Brooks, a senior research scientist at Michigan Tech who is working with the Michigan Department of Transportation on drone integration, told GCN at the Transportation Research Board meeting this year that governments are just starting to integrate drones and that all signs point to heavier implementation.

Transportation departments are "on the cusp" of adopting aerial imaging for infrastructure inspections. “Things have really changed since the adoption of FAA Part 107 rules [for commercial use of drones] in August 2016," he said. "That’s made UAS deployment a lot more practical.”

About the Author

Matt Leonard is a former reporter for GCN.


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