Q&A: The Skies Are Alive — with the Sound of Drones

Harrison Wolf sees a future in which drones deliver medicine, conquer traffic and connect the disconnected

As project leader for the World Economic Forum’s Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Harrison Wolf envisions a future of autonomous flight for drones, drones that can transport heavy materials over great distances, and even flying cars. Wolf has taught for several years at USC Viterbi’s Aviation Safety & Security Program. He was recently named one of the drone industry’s top 40 experts in safety risk management by AUVSI’s Trusted Operator Program (TOP). We talked to him about the power and potential of drones.

You have been involved in streamlining regulations to democratize drones. Why is this important?

There has to be safety in the air. When you get on a plane, you expect to land safely on the other side. Right now, people are using drones just to take pictures of beautiful things. But as the drones increase in size and complexity and the missions grow, we need to have certainty that they’re not going to crash into a helicopter, or into another aircraft, or into somebody on the ground. A regulatory framework sets the rules so we can maintain air safety. Without that, we won’t have a world that we want to live in.

Tell us about your work in Rwanda.

The Rwandan government desired to help support and supply rural hospitals, which are often very disconnected from the central blood bank. They worked directly with a company called Zipline of Half Moon Bay to deliver blood to these hospitals by drone, helping save the lives of women who were bleeding out during childbirth. Initially, this was a small-scale operation, but the outcomes were tremendous: They could reduce the amount of time it took for blood delivery from four to six hours to 30 minutes, and doctors were able to more accurately order blood so that wastage in the system dropped to near zero percent. Because of this success, the government wanted to scale the program throughout the country.

My involvement came at this point. Over 1,200 lives had been impacted or saved because of the blood deliveries, but they needed a regulatory framework that was flexible and could grow with the various new developments of technology. With the World Economic Forum, we began working with the Rwandan government in 2017 to implement what’s called the first performance-based regulation in the world. That means we looked holistically at the issue and worked with many government partners to support these operations. Since our involvement in helping to write these new types of regulations, Rwanda has been able to move into the second iteration of their project, and will soon be able to service up to 95 percent of the country and move from roughly 20 district hospitals into the hundreds. Additionally, these hospitals are exploring low-weight, high-value goods delivered by drones. We’re excited to have been a part of creating regulations that not only enable this project, but also the domestic growth of the Rwandan drone industry.

What are some other ways drones are being used?

In Switzerland, drones are being tested to find wayward citizens, including elderly people who wander out during wintertime. You only have a number of hours to find them, and if it’s cloudy, satellite imaging doesn’t help. In stormy weather or close to mountains, it is extremely dangerous to fly helicopters. Drones could be used in those search and rescue efforts. That saves lives with minimal impact to populations.

Drones are also being used to hang wires between poles in rocky or extra dangerous terrain so that electric companies don’t have to send people up there. That saves lives. Drones are being used in what’s called “precision agriculture” — farmers are using multi-spectral imaging to look at the health of the crops, and using algorithms to determine where they can reduce the amount of water in some locations and increase it in other locations. They’re also using drones for spraying chemicals. In the energy industry, they’re using drones to inspect oil pipelines to look for methane leaks or for gas leaks or oil spills to minimize potential damage.

During Hurricane Harvey, drones were used to help identify where people were stranded so resources could be deployed to go pick them up. Similarly, with the Paradise Fire in Northern California, drone operators identified where hotspots were, where people might be and where the damage was greatest so firefighters could look for loved ones and victims. Internationally, the Tanzania Posts Corp. recently agreed to provide drone delivery of the mail.

What are some of the most interesting future drone applications?

In the medium to far future, passenger drones are something I would look for. Uber Elevate and Bell Helicopter are working together to imagine this future of autonomous passenger aircraft that can lift us out of congestion. Boeing just demonstrated their first next-generation electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft. I also envision fully autonomous flight that requires no human input, where the computer says when and where to fly, what mission to accomplish, what sensors to use and how to analyze pertinent information. Right now, all those systems need humans to monitor them.

Here’s another example of a fully autonomous drone: Let’s say you need to monitor a pipeline for leaks. Today, you have to have a human flying all around it in a plane or helicopter. If you could remove that human from the operation and instead have a “smart” drone inspect the pipeline, that reduces the cost of the mission significantly, as the most expensive part is humans. Further, that drone could hover low to the ground to examine underneath lifted pipelines, getting a vantage point previously impossible from the air.

Drones themselves will be the mechanism by which we connect the disconnected. They will increasingly provide services and goods to people who have no other access. In Africa, for instance, I believe the third-largest killer is road safety — traffic accidents — behind HIV/AIDS and malaria. In Tanzania, less than 30 percent of the population lives within two kilometers of an all-weather road. We also see that Africa has a $75 billion infrastructure annual shortfall. Given these realities, drones represent an opportunity to leapfrog in many of these places, just as cellphones leapfrog traditional landlines. If you begin using drones to deliver vaccines or blood to far-away hospitals, especially during emergency conditions such as flooding, then you save lives immediately by getting people off the road and getting them the supplies they need.

The technologies that we’re testing with drones today — AI, autonomous controls, new hybrid flight systems, electric vertical takeoff and landing systems — are the technologies that will enable the flying cars of tomorrow. As the technology matures, only then will we know how much we can benefit from drones.

Which countries are winning the drone sweepstakes?

China is certainly leading the world in the manufacture of drones and drone technology. That’s because of one company: DJI. Eighty percent of drones flown in the United States and all over the world are DJI drones. They were the first to truly consumerize drones and have largely won that market. The Chinese government is able to test new technologies and new data acquisition without this cultural reaction to privacy issues. They also have a very uniquely balanced society, where they have a very dense urban region but also a huge rural region to test all of these agricultural uses of drones.

Switzerland has also been a major leader. They’ve been very forward-thinking in how to approach operations and have enabled many pilot projects for a few years. And the United States is beginning to catch up through their pilot projects, with the Department of Transportation collaborating with ongoing FAA engagement to understand the local role of airspace governance, which has never really been tested. And of course, Rwanda is probably the international leader for scaled humanitarian operations and drones for good through their work with Zipline to deliver blood to rural hospitals.

What else should people know about drones?

I think one of the challenges in the drone industry is people fear privacy invasion, which is reasonable. They also hear about what’s going on in Iraq and Afghanistan with drone attacks. But the reason I do this job is to help society and humanity grow with new technology, because I think for far too long drones have just been shoved away and their benefits haven’t been realized.

We’re still at the beginning of a 20-year story with drones. Drones will connect disconnected parts of society that are cut off because of warfare or extreme climate events, that can’t access goods and services. The most vulnerable parts of society throughout the world will benefit from drone medical deliveries, from a more robust logistics systems and the implementation of drones for social good. If we just save one or two lives with drones, that’s a win. That feels pretty good.