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How drones have evolved – Chatting with Professor Homayoun Najjaran

In this article we reached out to UBC Professor Homayoun Najjaran to learn more about his thoughts on how drones have evolved

University of British Columbia Professor Homayoun Najjaran has been researching drones for a long time.  We thank the Professor, and the University as well, in taking time to participate in this discussion on how drones have evolved since he began his research and how he sees them evolving in the future.

Q. Professor Najjaran, you have been researching drones since 2007, what sparked your interest in this space?

It was gradual development of expertise and interest. My MASc and PhD research, dating back to late 90’s, focused on autonomous navigation in unknown environments and involved the challenges of mobile robotics that is, roughly speaking, the predecessors of todays’ autonomous vehicles. My work on vision-based mapping and navigation was naturally applicable to aerial, ground, underwater or even extraterrestrial vehicles. However, what, I recall, made the big difference was back in 2008 when a local BC company named Accuas, a true pioneer in this field, approached my lab to help them automate the landing of their fixed-wing UAV used for aerial mapping. We successfully completed the research under an NSERC Engage program, which was newly introduced. The next step was to work with the same on forestry projects. Unfortunately, our application for funding was not successful probably because this was seven years ago, and not many researchers could appreciate the abilities of drones for vast coverage. The news is now full of such attempts. Accuas had a good point. They felt Canada was at least 5 years ahead of the game for its more lenient regulations towards civilian use of drones than, for example, the US. I think their estimate was quite accurate! Another important motivation was my students’ enthusiasm. After all, playing with drones was and is quite fun!

Q. What has surprised you most about the rise of the drone industry and how drones have evolved since you began researching drones?

We read and hear drones’ good-bad-ugly news everyday, so there have always been a lot of surprises. But I am most impressed by the fact that one can now have a decent indoor drone for under $100, and that stepping up to a fully functional outdoor drone is possible with just a few hundred dollars more. This means that millions of bright minds have the opportunity to try billions of bright ideas for civilian applications of drones.

Q. Do you build your own drones? If yes, any tips for our readers on how to best build their own?

We did build a few in my lab. We built a hexacopter and then a fixed-wing drone a few years ago. They crashed often, but we could quickly repair them, change the parts, sometimes duct-tape them and get them back on track. I believe they are sitting somewhere in lab, reminding me of the students who finished their theses with them. It is like looking at the old toys of your children after they grow up and abandon them!

We are now more focused on civilian applications so we now prefer to buy the drones off the shelf. There are many durable, agile and cost effective options out there. So I won’t be tempted to build another one unless we want to demonstrate a innovative design or meet specific requirements such as very high payloads, long flight durations, etc. Instead, we would like to focus on specific different applications, and deployment of particular sensors and actuators. We are also looking into some interesting theoretical control system challenges that drones can offer for our studies.

Q. In Canada, as in the rest of the world, privacy is a concern people often raise when speaking of drones. How do you respond to those that raise privacy concerns to you? What can be done by private citizens, businesses, and governments to combat this concern?

Social impacts of the drone technology are of course significant; both positive and negative. Besides privacy, drones can also disturb our safety and security if they are not used properly. But wasn’t, and isn’t still to some extent, the Internet also a risk to our privacy, safety and security? But we now have no reservations in sharing our most personal and critical information from bank accounts and tax details to most private pictures online. Obviously the information technology has prepared a great platform to address such concerns, but I believe that the vital applications of Internet including the ability to search for information, build knowledge, communicate with others, and conduct business fast and at ease has made the Internet an integral part of our lives regardless of our age, race, or sex. In the same manner, practical applications of drones with indisputable value can change the balance to drones’ favour.

Q. Drones clearly were useful tools in Nepal. If Canada were to have a similar natural disaster would it be prepared to respond and effectively use unmanned aircraft as part of the relief efforts?

Of course! An eye in the sky, drones can easily surpass natural barriers and provide us with critical and timely information from locations to which humans have limited or no access. Dealing with the aftermath of earthquakes, landslides, forest fires, floods are example of natural disasters where drones can make a difference, but drones can also be used to look after manmade catastrophes such gas leaks, oil spills, high-rise fires and so forth.

Q. If you were responsible for managing the Canadian airspace, what would you be doing to safely incorporate drones?

Similar to other type vehicles, I would make sure that all civilian drones meet certain safety standards, have valid registration and insurance. The operators are older than a certain age, have got training, and are licensed. I would also acknowledge the great contributions of the hobbyist, but keep them inside RC clubs and restricted air space and enforce tight regulations on unregistered use of drones and those who may abuse this technology.

Q. Look 8 more years into the future. What will the drones of that time look like and how will they be helping all of us in our daily lives?

It is hard to predict the state of the technology in this fast changing industry that is hardware, software, robotics, or as some like to call it “mechatronics”. Thinking of what we had and used eight years ago, I find it hard to believe what we can get for a very affordable price today. In fact almost none of the hardware and software technologies available five to ten years ago have survived or are popular anymore. Nevertheless, I would suggest that drones will perhaps, in even sooner than eight years, be an ordinary tool for farmers, photographers, contractors, real estate agents, search and rescue crews, firefighters, police, and “with stretch of our imagination,” pizza deliverers, package carriers, and like.

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