Photo: Novelty RPAS
- PAIH: The commonly circulated opinion suggests that, starting from 2025, the United States would inspire the rest of the world to step away from conventional aviation. The tasks that are currently carried out by manned aircraft would be taken over by robots, drones - firstly in the military, then in airlift services, with the drone revolution finally reaching the passenger flights. This sounds like sci-fi. What is the truth here?
Michał Zawadzak: Even though we are headed towards such scenario, as all signs seem to suggest, replacement of the manned aircraft with unmanned systems - either in military aviation, airlift or civil aviation domain, would be taking place much later than in 2025. Even though humans are said to be the weakest link in aviation, in many cases the crew is still needed onboard. We shall remember that development of combat UAV systems began around 100 years ago, and the drones became a permanent feature of contemporary conflicts. However the missions they are tasked with are very much different from the ones carried out by the manned fighter aircraft. I have read a statement made recently by Brig. General Piotr Krawczyk in one of the interviews he gave. He stated that “drones are relevant but they will not replace the fighters”. I fully endorse this opinion. I also think that the airline and civil pilots will still be flying the airliners and airlifters, for a long time into the future, acting as a “safety feature”, supervising the flight in person, directly. One should note that the airline pilots are already using numerous onboard systems that may perform most of the work for them. However, nobody is thinking of eliminating them for good. I am highly convinced that no passenger would like to find him/herself in such situation.
- The drones market is dynamically developing. The potential value of the global market is estimated at the level exceeding USD 130 billion. The value of the UAVs sector in Poland may go up to PLN 10 billion, throughout the upcoming decade. What are the main factors involved, when it comes to such success?
Not only does the currently available technology allow for creating unmanned platforms that would diminish the cost of aircraft operations, as it paves the way towards a range of potential new applications too. Even though military systems form a major portion of the drone market, the civil applications are the most symptomatic ones, when it comes to the “boom” experienced by the drones industry. Looking towards the future, one should note than 10 to 20 years ago, the remote controlled aircraft were used mainly by modelmakers - this somewhat resulted from their hobby. There were only a few companies manufacturing such equipment, while the term “drone” was virtually unknown - the models were known as “RC airplanes” back then. Throughout the last few years the airspace became crammed with millions of civil and commercial unmanned systems, manufactured mainly in China. The market is dominated by DJI. The reports suggest that this manufacturer owns 70% of the whole market. The FAA once made estimation, according to which around 7 million unmanned aircraft would be flying in the United States of America by 2020. At the moment we could be having around 100 thousand drones in Poland.
Photo: Novelty RPAS
- In what areas are the drones most useful?
Undoubtedly one can say that the civil drones are used mostly for aerial film and photography activities. However, there are numerous applications that are far more interesting. Recently, within the context of smog and air pollution discourse present in the Polish media, it was said that drones could be used to examine the composition of smoke, for detection of toxic substances that are formed as a result of burning of the waste. The Polish AirVein project, on the other hand, assumes that drones could be employed to transport blood and its components to nearby hospitals. Generally speaking, drones can be used to conduct precise measurements in land surveying, mining, agriculture, for aerial inspections and documentation, in SAR operations, for weather forecasting or for the purpose of assessing the consequences of natural disasters for instance. Paradoxically, “courier services” and shipping is the last of the possible applications I would like to mention - even though this is a popular issue, there is still a long way to cover, before such services become available.
- What are the primary challenges that are faced by the drone users and manufacturers?
The most important challenge faced by the whole sector, not only by the manufacturers and users, but also by the officials and aviation authorities, is related to creating so called U-space. This is the portion of the airspace where the civil drones could freely and automatically travel, in line with the aviation law regulations remaining in force, ensuring a top level of safety, both in the air, as well as on the ground. The above requires a drone traffic management system to be created, which would resemble the air traffic management system used for large aircraft. This means that manufacturers would need to comply with a requirement to equip the aircraft with systems resembling the transponders, transmitting location, altitude and the remaining relevant data. The operators and drone owners would be required to register their aircraft in a centralized system. Flying a drone could evolve and take on shape that would be radically different from the current one.
- The number of Drone Pilot Licenses issued by the Polish Civil Aviation Authority went up from 6 back in 2013 to more than 3500 in 2016, which makes Poland one of the leading European states, when it comes to the number of professional drone operators. What has made the drones so popular?
The UAVO credentials became popular because of the obligations imposed by the regulations of the aviation law directly. UAVO is a credential required for the operator to fly a drone for purposes different than sport or recreation. This refers to any type of commercial operations, including research or scientific activities and so on. Those who want to earn money flying drones must go through training and pass state exams. Once they receive the UAVO license, they can be referred to as aviation personnel. What’s interesting is that a lot of people who are willing to obtain the UAV credentials have no intention to make commercial use of the aircraft. This is a result of the fact that recreational flying is prohibited in urbanized areas, in the vicinity of people, vehicles and buildings, if we’re using a drone the weight of which is greater than 600 grams. So, if someone lives in a city and uses the drone solely for recreational flying involving aerial filming or photography, then either he/she has to buy a platform weighing less than 600 grams, or he/she needs to enrol himself/herself in a training program, in order to obtain “commercial” drone operator credentials.
- Is it easy to operate a drone?
Even though drones vary, in general the answer is: YES - it is easy to fly a drone. The designs available on the market now are practically flying themselves - they take off and land at a push of a single button, while a route may be defined even by drawing it on a map displayed on a tablet’s screen. In case of the multicopter [multirotor] drones that are most popular, if one lets go off the controls, he/she makes the drone automatically hover. The UAV is automatically stabilized then, barometrically [altitude-wise] in vertical plane and in horizontal plane, thanks to the sat-nav systems such as GPS/GLONASS. Furthermore, high quality civil drones are fitted with collision avoidance sensors fitted around them, so that any collision could be avoided. The basic operation of a drone can be conducted even by a few years old child.
Photo: Novelty RPAS
- Several Polish companies are currently manufacturing unmanned aircraft that remain competitive on the Western markets, along with 3.5 thousand small enterprises rendering their services with the use of unmanned platforms. What distinguishes the Polish manufacturers from their foreign counterparts?
There is no clear answer to this question. Small companies usually render their services for the Polish customers, rarely reaching out to the external markets. Meanwhile, the larger manufacturers are usually focused on the foreign markets, where the marketplace is really receptive and open towards new solutions, and where the customers yield a greater purchasing power. The Polish manufacturing companies are usually formed by young, creative people who have their roots in academic research groups with solid scientific and purely aviation-related background. They design their drones on the basis of experience and knowledge gathered when they were flying the manned aircraft. This is where their advantage is, however, original ideas also bear a great relevance, such as the national “blood circulation system”, created by AirVein. One should also note that Poland may also boast of successful military UAV designs. For instance, Gliwice-based FlyTronic company which is now a part of the WB Group, has created the FlyEye UAV - the first of the UAV systems operated by the Polish military. Now, as a part of the WB Group, the manufacturer in question is exporting its products to other European countries and to Asia as well.
- So do the Polish drones stand a chance to conquer the global market?
I think that this market domain is young enough to make the chances to conquer the global market equal for both the Polish, as well as for the foreign companies. Even though the Poles cannot complain about their creativity, the financing provided through the state innovation support programs, or private investments, are often of key importance here. I often talk to the Polish drone manufacturers - their offers are export-focused, they showcase their products at a variety of international shows, comparing their inventions to the Western achievements and looking for foreign customers directly. Furthermore, the Polish manufacturers are not the only entities that may achieve successes in the field. The UAV sector offers attractive opportunities for instance to the software developers, and these opportunities are infinitely more extensive. DroneRadar app is a great example here - it has now become a functional drones monitoring and (partially) management tool. DroneRadar has been granted an accreditation from the Polish Civil Aviation Authority and Polish Air Navigation Services Agency. It was being tested by ATC services, it was also presented and showcased internationally as a system that increases the level of safety in the airspace. The authors hope that the app faces a prospect of being implemented in airspaces beyond the Polish border.
Thank you for the conversation.
Interview conducted by:
Polish Investment and Trade Agency - Economic Promotion Department
Photo: Michał Zawadzak
Michał Zawadzak - experienced RC modeller, licensed drone operator with UAVO/VLOS/BVLOS/INS credentials. He professionally conducts training activities required to obtain the UAVO license. Aviation geek. Editor of the first ever Polish website covering the issue of drones: www.swiatdronow.pl.