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Remotely piloted aerial systems’ (RPAS) time has come: Why NZ can lead the charge to a roadless economy

New Zealand’s progressive airspace governance puts it in a leading position to strategically harness the economic potential offered by a roadlesss economy.

To power ahead, New Zealand needs a flexible and sensible airspace regulation regime, a balancing act not a lot of countries have achieved or managed to build proper governance around.

Recently, New Zealand held its first symposium of Remotely Piloted Aerial Systems (RPAS), to celebrate the centenary of aviation. This was a unique opportunity to meet and greet private industry, curious engineers, designers and government officials from all areas of this new economic engine.

Here’s the future: We will have more micro-vehicles in integrated skies in the next decade than we ever have had helicopters, small airplanes and larger aircraft. Ever.

A roadless economy is already beating strong in New Zealand.

There are already over 40 organisations that utilise small aircraft for commercial purposes in the following areas: agriculture, surveying, aerial film & imaging, systems suppliers, research & development and public services.

New Zealand, having the benefits of being a small nation, is a shining beacon of vertical integration of all agencies of government involved in airspace governance and its solution.

A good example of this is the development of the Airshare platform — a sort of Expedia for all things dealing with small aircrafts.

Airshare is an incredible resource for awareness to the general public and guidance for usage of airspace. Airshare lets everyone know where you are, register a flight itinerary and distribute flight itinerary information to all relevant groups.

Airshare is only the beginning of what will drive the growth of airspace integration. New Zealand’s Civil Aviation Authority is actively requesting public opinion and industry engagement now on how to make New Zealand the best destination for companies developing new products and services for a roadless economy with a primary focus on safety and integration of airspace by 2018. You can participate here

We are at the crossroads for a roadless future and we are not at this position by mistake: Many forces are at play and never before in history have we been as connected.

We would not be seeing the level of technological miniaturization had we not been building hundreds of millions of smartphones with ever increasing amount of sensors.

Some innovative companies have made noticeable headstarts in unmanned aerial vehicle technology. In the area of agriculture, innovative companies are creating aerial maps of vast hectares of land that enable targeted application of fertilizers and chemical products only where they are needed. There won’t be a need to drop up to one million tonnes of fertilizer every year onto the land and have it also be absorbed by the water table beneath.

See and sense: new realities

We are augmenting our ability to see and sense: Large areas of mapping that once took days and weeks to complete can now be done in a single day with a single crew. This same technology will undoubtedly continue to be miniaturized to handheld devices which one day -in the next five years- will enable high-fidelity 3D-reconstructions of small spaces.

Drones used in floods mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina

Small aerial vehicles can also be used for scanning infrastructure such as bridges, power transmission lines, buildings or oil rigs for critical fatigue and failures. The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco is already routinely scanned with small aerial vehicles which map areas of interest to only have human presence on specific areas of the bridge that have been identified for inspection or to be fixed. We shouldn’t have people in harms way if a small device that costs less than $5,000 can do this.

The health of our waterways can be monitored using small aerial vehicles that can take water samples and lab-on-a-chip tests for immediate measurements and data relays of such water tests. Today, open source hardware such as the OpenROV already enable us to conduct water testing at variable depths and locations. This is a fundamental step change in terms of safety from the current alternative of having a helicopter with two or three crew dropping a bucket into the sea, at immense safety hazards and unnecessary risk to human lives.

Farm monitoring with drones

Casual use of aerial technology

More casual uses of aerial technology will be the delivery of basic courier services to remote regions; tracking the erosion of the land; mountain search and rescue operations; replacing street lighting and light poles altogether; high-rise window washing; identifying illegal logging; monitoring carbon absorption on foliage; measuring weather in real time instead of modeling it; providing telemedicine services or even casual services such as delivering food to your active smartphone location. Yes, you’ll be able to order your fish and chips via small aerial vehicle, pay from the app and even possibly summon the aircraft to clean-up the trash.

Kiwi ingenuity is augmenting our ability to uphold kaitiaki. And New Zealand is more than capable and ready to seize these opportunities. The roadless economy is closer than we think.

Arturo Pelayo is an innovation consultant. He has over 12 years experience in projects that encompass design consultancies for new products and services, development of corporate training and business intelligence briefings across the US, Germany, UK, Mexico and New Zealand. He is passionate about embracing the future and exploring solutions to deal with these unstoppable changes.

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