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Skanska takes part in semi-autonomous drone use trials

14 January 2020 | By Stephen Cousins

Skanska is engaged in one of seven government-backed trials to road test the next generation of semi-autonomous drones for use at industrial locations, including construction sites.

The contractor’s redevelopment project of a site in Surrey will function as a “Regulatory Sandbox” to test the conditions under which drones should be allowed to fly semi-autonomously Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS).

Currently, BVLOS flights require permission from the CAA and can only occur in specific, restricted cases.

The project is backed by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and will run from February to June 2020. The trial is supported by drone technology firm Sees.ai, air traffic control services provider NATS and Vodafone. Further testbeds are planned at an Atkins site in April and with the fire service.

Sees.ai technology enables users to remotely operate drones from a control room watching real-time visualisations of the drone’s environment on screen. According to the firm, this allows them to execute complex missions, even close to obstacles.

The drones at the Surrey site will fly a range of still-to-be finalised missions considered useful to architects, contractors and clients. The captured video and imagery will be used by the project’s offsite team to understand what is happening on site in semi real-time.

Sees.ai technology enables users to remotely operate drones from a control room watching real-time visualisations

John McKenna, CEO of Sees.ai, told BIM+: “It’s already possible to build fully autonomous systems, but they are quite limited in terms of what they can do. Teaming up a human pilot with a highly-automated machine makes it possible to do far more and far more cost effectively. It mirrors what is happening in the autonomous vehicle world, where fully-autonomous cars are driving around our streets but with a human driver who takes over control whenever there's an exception.”

He added: “We’re learning more and more about potential use cases from a professional design team point of view, such as monitoring facades as they go up to make sure they are within tolerance.”

The safety of BVLOS operation is a key concern and according to McKenna there are challenging requirements around communication resource availability, such as bandwidth and latency. The See.ai system must be able to terminate the mission safely should communications fail, if that happens the drone will switch to fully autonomous mode and safely retrace its path and terminate the mission.

The seven CAA Regulatory Sandboxes cover different sectors and use cases and will explore the frameworks under which regulatory approvals for routine BVLOS operations can be granted. Amazon and Volocopter are among the companies selected to take part.

According to the CAA, BVLOS operations in the UK could bring huge benefits, including drone parcel delivery from a distribution centre to a customer; long-distance aerial surveys of infrastructure, such as power lines or highway construction; surveillance at the scene of an accident or incident, operated from an external control centre; and street mapping a whole city using optical and acoustic sensors.

It could result in cost and time savings for contractors, said McKenna: “Human drone operators take time to travel to site, they incur travel expenses, they require a site induction and chaperoning. Compare that to the simplicity of making a call, the pilot putting on a headset and carrying out the mission instantly. You pay only for the time the drone’s actually flying, rather than for the entire day.”