Transcript: A - Z of Tech Episode 4: D for Drones

 

Louise Taggart

Hello and welcome to episode 4 of the A-Z of tech podcast. Today, we are talking D for drones, also known as the slightly less snappy, unmanned aerial vehicles.

In the studio today we have Elaine Whyte, who leads PwC’s drones team here in the UK.

Felicity Main

I also did another interview with Dr. Pippa Malmgren, who co-founded a drones company, and had some really funny stories, one of which is all about avoiding a crocodile infested lake with drones, so more on that one later.

So Elaine thank you so much for coming in today, I wondered whether we could just start with, what do we mean when we say drone?  What are all the technologies that we are covering with that word?

Elaine Whyte

Drones, I think about as something that operates in the air, but actually other people out there in the industry would consider as being the expanse of all autonomous vehicles that operate from the sea all the way through into the air.

But in terms of PwC and where our focus is right now it’s very much on the unmanned aerial vehicle, UAV, that operates in the air. When you talk to the purists out there, they will say drone is a dirty, and actually UAV is the correct word for the actual flying air vehicle. But actually where the real value is, is not just the platform itself, but you have to combine it with the sensor, and that sensor is where you get an unmanned air system, a UAS. That’s where you begin to see the value that can be delivered for our clients moving forward.

So, very much a UAS, UAV or drone, whichever you care to say, that operates in the air, is where we are focused on right now.

Felicity

And so how did you get into this field?

Elaine

I spent 20 years in the air force, and I was very aware of the advantages that an aerial view could present you in terms of operations out there on the battlefield. Taking this to business, taking air power to the broader sense of the commercial world, is where I saw the advantages that drones can deliver for our clients moving forward, so it was making that association.

There were already companies out there, who were investing in being able to do that, take that aerial view out to commercial applications, but actually from within a PwC construct, this was where I started thinking, this is quite a complex area. We are operating in the air. We have a different regulator that we have to satisfy, and from that means our clients, who want to be able to exploit this technology, and more importantly exploit the data that it collects - they will need to have some specialist advice on how to do that moving forward.

Louise

You are obviously bringing a fairly specific perspective given your background. What are some of the things that you most enjoy at the minute about working in a field that’s so innovative and constantly changing as drones?

Elaine

Good question. So, I think it is all the different sources of information that you can go out there and search for and learn from as an organisation, because it is a nascent technology in terms of the total impact it could have on our society. Our economic study suggest that it could be as much as £42bn by 2030, but actually identifying what needs to happen between now and then is the real challenge for us as a business to recognise.

So, being able to find those sources, those niches of capabilities out there, really stretches the imagination in many cases.  And in particular of course, it is not just about the air vehicle, in fact it is very little about the platform itself, is about the data, and what you then do with the data, and that is a new area for me to look into.

Felicity

So, a lot of people think, when they think of drones, it’s something in the park that is doing some filming, some photography, maybe at somebody shooting a new show. Blue Planet is an example that you talk about a lot, and where drones were used.

But what are some of those use cases that are a bit more coming out of the woodwork, that are quite interesting at the moment?

Elaine

When we look at how they get used commercially at this moment in time, the two most mature use cases would be surveying and inspection, filming you’ve already touched on. I think it’s well established within that industry already.

If we take surveying and inspection, you can use a drone to take images of your capital project as it develops over time. You can compare that progress against the project plan and progress. You can use that source of data many times. So, you can present it back on a platform that can be accessible by the planners, for example, who maybe checking the progress from a remote location, from the quality checkers of the actual suppliers, from the building company, from the construction companies. All these different people can access one platform that has one version of the truth of the story on, and that allows people to save considerable amount of time and money in that production time.

If you took the oil and gas sector. They are already using drones as an inspection tool, and if you consider to shut down an oil and gas platform to inspect the stack, it’s generally accepted that it costs about £4m a day to do that, lost revenue. So, if you can inspect that stack using a drone, then your cost avoidance can be quite significant and that drone can give you powerful images, gives you great insights, so that when you actually do shut the structure down to repair it, you know exactly what it is that you need to go out there and do. So oil and gas is another fabulous example of where drones are being used right now.

Louise

Those are use cases that sound particularly commercially driven.  When we look at the wider public discourse around drones, there has been a few headlines recently around how they’ve been used in public spaces. How do we engage to show the positive sides of drones that are more consumer rather than commercial related?

Elaine

There is a very interesting project that was run through Nesta, called the Flying High Challenge. It identified five cities across the country to look at good use cases within those cities, and it was the cities that came up with those good use cases. So, the community themselves identified where it is they would like to exploit this technology moving forward.

And that highlighted a number of areas where it is they could use drones, and a positive use case, a tech for good opportunity.  Looking forward, there is an aspiration there will be another phase of that project, and there is an expectation that it will use an emergency services test case, a transport of goods one, but likely to be a medical product transport, as well as an infrastructure one.

If we take the emergency services example, there are many emergency services who are currently using drone technology, and using them very effectively across the country. Police, fire, and search and rescue at sea, for example, and I think we are beginning to hear more and more about how this tool, and it is a tool in that example, how this tool of a drone is being used, and those good news stories are beginning to surface. That is what we need to happen to effectively change public opinion or at least grow societal acceptance that this is a technology that can be used for the greater good of society.

Felicity

You talked earlier about the need to build that consumer trust in order to reach those big figures, adding £42bn to the UK economy.

Is there anything else that we really need to do? Do we need new regulations? What sort of things would you suggest?

Elaine

I tend to summarise it into three points. You are right, societal acceptance, I think, is perhaps the biggest challenge. The other one is technology advancement. I think that will happen. I think there is considerable investment being made into what that technology will look like moving forward. So, this is how potentially they do a collision avoidance with other assets flying in the air, what does that technology look like, the robustness for the safety case, the redundancy that’s built into that platform. So, that technology, battery life etc., that will advance. The third thing is regulation expansion, and actually when it comes to emerging technology, drones are fortunate that there is already a regulator in place. You compare a lot of conversation, which have taken place over the last few months, about how our personal data is being used, is this something we want to regulate, we don’t quite know, because we don’t quite know what that looks and what good looks like moving forward.

Actually in the space of the air, there is a regulator, and that helps to build that important societal trust moving forward, but that regulation in order to allow the full exploitation of the £42bn economy that this could create, they need to expand. I perhaps think of beyond visual line of sight, BVLOS. So, at this moment in time, the regulation restricts you, so you have to be able to physically see that drones that you are operating, the operator is in control all the time. You can foresee a position in years to come, where the drone is operated automatically, coming out of its box, flying down the rail track, taking images, or passing back those images that there is a concern of (so actually doing edge processing on the drone), passing them back to some control centre, who them determines whether there is a need to send somebody out, an engineer out, going back to defy a potential fault of the future.

That you can see needs regulatory expansion to happen, and we still need to keep ourselves compatible to what’s going on in the global market as well, and that’s a really important facet of that regulation. It is complex, and it isn’t something to be solved overnight.

Louise

One thing that I am interested in, is you’ve mentioned that obviously drones are unmanned and there is a pilot or an operator who is on the ground. Do we already see autonomous drones, or is that something that you might anticipate seeing in the future?

Elaine

That’s something for the future. I think the technology is being advanced in that area, that’s where you are going to see the level of productivity savings we would hope to achieve. So, we predicted by 2030 there would be £16bn of productivity savings across the UK. That will only be achieved when you are beginning to get the full autonomous vehicles flying in the air, without having to have a person, one to one person, so maybe a one to many drones.

Louise

What kind of skill sets do you typically see people having, who are working in the drone space? I know taking it back to cyber, we would normally anticipate that people have a STEM background, although I think that’s definitely a stereotype that’s being changed.  Is that similar in the drone space as well?

Elaine

Very definitely, wide and varied is what I would say on the skills that you need. So, you have those people who are operating on flying the drone, who need a degree of airmanship, and they have to be qualified to fly them commercially, and they will go through a degree of rigour and training and ongoing training to be able to qualify for that.

But then you’ve got the important aspect of the data, what do you actually do with that data. So you are moving much more into that data analytics aspect and machine learning, and hopefully into artificial intelligence, if you are beginning to mass enough data into that. But what’s really important here is, how do you take that data as it stands today, and make it applicable to a business. It is not just the technology in isolation, you have to have that business understanding to be able to combine that with the human insight, to be able to gain the, what does this really mean for my business.

So, if I reflect on the skill sets that I have within our drones team, I have someone, who has been out there done that, done lots of drone flying, captured lots of images, understands how to run a drone operation. I have people who have done data analytics, and set the targets for machine learning and understand what the future may hold as we advance on the machine learning side of it.  But importantly, I have people with, what I would regard as classic PwC skill sets. So, from an assurance background, for PMO background, program management, to consulting background potentially, who are able to make sense of what comes out of the data analysis, so that it has true meaning for the client when it gets integrated back into their business. So, a full sweep.

Actually, I think it really blows apart some of the myths of, you need to come from a STEM background to work in tech. I would argue you just need to be curious, and that curiosity will see you grow the skills that you need to be able to effectively deliver support within the tech environment.

Felicity

How long do you think it is going to be before we see hundreds of these things flying around our heads every day, up and down the Thames, how long do you think that’s going to take?

Elaine

Up and down the Thames is a really good example to use. If we look at the roads around London right now, they are absolutely jam-packed, traffic is slow, we are approaching rush hour, will take you a good while to get across town or to get anything across town. But then we look at the sky, and we look at the sky above the rail networks, we look at the sky above the Thames and other relatively benign areas, and it’s empty, and you would say, ‘isn’t that a space that could be used, that takes something off that road, that actually makes passage on land easier for the rest of us?

So, when, I guess your question, when we are likely to see that, well it is some way off, and what is it in that example. You will probably say transport of goods. You could foresee a time when there is a hub that comes in down the Thames, and therefore you are landing those goods straight into Central London without having to drive them on the ground. Perhaps in the far future, we may be fortunate enough to see passenger carrying drones to ease the commute for us all.

Louise

Sounds ideal.

Elaine

Yeah, it does sound ideal, doesn’t it, and there are certainly lots of companies making lots of noise about their investment in this area.  How that pans out, what that looks like, we are some time away from that?

Louise

Commuter drones aside, are there any particular drone technologies or drone use cases that you personally will be quite excited to see come to fruition?

Elaine

In the UK market?

Louise

Yeah.

Elaine

I would think a little differently from the drone itself, and think more about the systems of systems that supports the operation of drones. So, before you can have this vision of a future, where they are flying over the Thames, and over the rail networks, and perhaps down the motorways, you would need to have a system that allows all of those to operate around each other safely, and so that there is awareness of where they all are, and somebody would need to, or something rather will need to hold that information and be monitoring, and be confident of that system operating in a safe way.

Unified traffic management is one of the phrases that’s used for UTM, also UAV traffic management is also being UTM as well. But I think for me, what I would really like to see is that a system in place that will support the future growth and development of them operating in that lower air space.

Felicity

Elaine it is such an interesting topic. Thank you so much for coming in to chat to us today. Where can people find you on social media?

Elaine

You can find me on @elainewhyte100. The 100 representing last year’s RAF 100, celebrating 100 years of the Royal Air Force. So, yes @elainewhyte100 or on LinkedIn Elaine Whyte.

Felicity

Great thank you! So next I am joined by Dr. Pippa Malmgren, one of the co-founders of drones company H Robotics.

So, drones is a super-hot topic right now. We’ve just done research at PwC about it actually about how much drones could add to the UK economy. So, such an exciting new emerging technology.  What drove you to go into this area?

Pippa Malmgren

It’s quite incredible this space. Well it is such an interesting story.  One of my clients and I got together to create this company. He had been a trader, but also grew up in a construction family. So, he knew how to build stuff, and had been coding since he was about 12. He had an idea for replacing helicopters with something that was much smaller and more agile, far less expensive. And I had a view that this was going to explode as an area of demand.

Anyway, we decided to really look at the market, and what we saw is that fundamentally almost everything is a toy. It was designed for a retail consumer, and even the things that are described as industrial are really souped up toys. For example, most of them can’t handle any wind, and they are not waterproof. So if it rains, you are up the creek, you will never see it again. So, I thought let’s build kind of the equivalent of a Land Rover…

 

Felicity

For the sky?

Pippa

Yes for the sky. It’s like a truck. It’s an interesting moment, because if you were to say I like cars, and what you mean by that is, a Go Kart, a Ford, a Ferrari, and a Land Rover, people talk about, ‘I like drones.’ Yeah, but drones, what you mean by that? So, most of them are something between a Go Kart and a Fiat, and we make a truck, Land Rover.

Also, we thought, ‘look the market is spending billions innovating new devices, new cameras, new sensors,’ we have no idea which one’s the clients want to use. Instead of putting all of those on the inside, which is what everybody else does, we said, ‘let’s create a physical platform that’s stable in the sky, and really terrible weather,’ and we test it in British weather.

If there is a storm, we are out standing in the middle of it, making sure that it does well.  Anyway you can attach anything you want. This way, the customer can stay current with the coolest new devices and then have all the data go to a stable platform in the cloud. So you’ve got a stable platform in the sky, and a stable platform in the cloud, and now make it possible to do all the analytics on a mobile device. For example, a board of directors in London, can see their assets on the other side of the world, and then say, ‘well, I want to see the photogrammetry, or I want to see the volumetric analysis,’ and all they have to do is click on their phone, so that’s what we have built.

Felicity

Some of the biggest use cases for these tough drones, are the mines and the oil refineries that you can’t access otherwise. Are there any other use case sectors that you are working on?

Pippa

Oh, there are so many, insurance is going to be absolutely massive, public safety absolutely massive.

I will give you an example, the mining is fascinating, because that’s where we started, African mines, and initially they bought it for security, because people are trying to steal from the mine in the middle of the night, usually young people. So, we fitted it out with very bright lights and that worked nicely, but they weren’t gathering any data.

Then they said the way we value the mine is we send a guy out with a measuring tape, once a quarter, I swear, and that guy measures the size of the pile of dirt they have pulled out of the pit, because it is always proportional to whatever it is, gold, or emeralds, or diamonds. We said, ‘well you know, if you could fly the thing you already own over the top, and you have a clear understanding within 10 minutes, like a precise view,’ and they said, ‘are you kidding? This totally changes our… you mean we can value it like once a week?’ We said, ‘you can do it every day if you want to.’ Anyway, game changer for them.

Then that led to another conversation, which is the most fascinating one, crocodiles. So, it turns out every mine in the world uses very toxic fluid to blast through the rock, and that fluid run off has to go somewhere.  So, they all have a ‘tailings dam,’ they call it. They are so awful, you don’t want to go anywhere near them, but you are supposed to know what’s the volume, and they tried putting a boat on it, but of course the toxic fluid eats through the hull of the boat. So, nobody wants to go on a leaky boat on the toxic lake, but then it also had crocodiles in the toxic lake, that trashed the leaky boat. So, we were like, ‘ah, we get it.’

So, we made a device, that’s a sonar that hangs from the drone, and drags on the surface, and now they know, not only the volume, but the shape of the basin, which is very important, because sometimes the liner has come unstuck.  So, now far less environmental damage…

Felicity

And no one gets eaten by crocodiles…

Pippa

Nobody gets eaten by crocodiles, and we are like, ‘this is what drones are for.’

Felicity

That’s a win! You touched earlier on the public safety aspect of drones. I think that’s a really interesting one, the kind of drones for social good, and that’s probably one of the use cases that’s going to get people more comfortable with using this technology. Do you think there is a consumer trust gap with this technology at the moment? Is it that’s what preventing take off?

Pippa

I do think there is a trust gap. I also think there are two profoundly different categories. One is the retail consumer, who flies them around, at whim, people are very nervous about that.  Then there is the industrial side, where its companies typically deploying them on their own properties or for specific tasks. People are much more comfortable with that.

One area, I think, is massive, is search and rescue. In fact, I was with the drone team at PwC for their wonderful big day with the Royal Air Force, and Elaine Whyte, if I can mention her name, because she is just so fantastic in the drone team.

I went over and talked to the Royal Air Force search and rescue guys, because they had the big fire engine, and they were sitting there and I’m like, ‘hello, I have a drone company, can I chat to you.’ I said ‘are you using drones?’ and they said, ‘oh, one of the guys on the team has a toy, and we use that every once in a while.’

They literally have not started in search and rescue. So, when they are looking for someone who is lost on a foggy mountain side, you know what you can do with the drone is, it can track the kind of chips that are now ubiquitous in hiking boots, or a phone on the person emits a signal and you can get it to track that.

Now you don’t have to go looking everywhere, you can find them, and the drone can go with voice delivery, to say ‘we know where you are, help is on the way.’ So, I think search and rescue is a massive area, but again, you need drones that can handle really bad weather, and so few of them can.

Felicity

Pippa thank you so much for coming in to talk to us today.  Can we find you on Twitter?

Pippa

Yes I am on @drpippam, I would have been just pippa m, but you get Pippa Middleton’s rear end so I had to put the doctor in front of it!

Felicity

Thank you so much good to talk to you.So, we had a couple of great guests on this episode. Loved that it was all women in tech.

Louise

Absolutely some great representation going on there, and we would love it if you could join us for our next episode, which will be E for Ethics.

Felicity

So, you can find us on Twitter in the meantime.  I am @FelicityMain.

Louise

And I am @LouTagTech and we will see you next time.

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