Interview with Mark Askelson, University of North Dakota on Drone's Role in Smart Cities

Mark Askelson
Professor of atmospheric sciences and Head of Research Institute for Autonomous Systems (RIAS) at the University of North Dakota

Hi and a warm welcome and we are happy to bring out yet another new post for our UAV Interview Series.

For this time our spotlight has turned towards Mark Askelson. He is the professor of atmospheric sciences and head of Research Institute for Autonomous Systems (RIAS) at the University of North Dakota.

We thank him for agreeing to take part in this and help spread the word about the unmanned aircraft systems to our readers. In this interview, Askelson will talk in-depth about the drone’s role in smart cities and cover all the doubts and questions you had on integrating drones into smart cities.

We felt this is a topic that will become a reality sometime pretty soon. So, when we had an opportunity to brief it out with the real expert in drone and smart cities niche, we grabbed it with both hands. We are sure you are going to find it interesting, so put on your reading glasses and scroll the window bar for great entertainment.

Let’s get started!

Welcome Mark Askelson, Tell us about your background and yourself.

Sure. I’m the Executive Director of the Research Institute for Autonomous Systems (RIAS) at UND. I wear two hats at UND…50% RIAS and 50% Professor in the Atmospheric Sciences Dept.

How did you start in the autonomous systems market?

In 2005, UND began work to help the DoD with challenges associated with operating unmanned aircraft at select locations across the U.S. I have a radar background and was brought on to the team because of that. That started my work with Unmanned Aircraft Systems, and I have been actively engaged with those challenges and broader autonomy ever since.

What are the obstacles of integrating drones in smart cities? How could it be tackled?

Smart City on Drones

Great question. We have many challenges here, which include technical and policy. On the technical end, we need to develop systems that ensure safe operation of such systems. It can be boiled down simply to “do not crash into stuff.” The most important stuff we do not want to crash into is humans, but collisions with trees, buildings, etc., is unwanted as well.

The industry is working on technologies to solve this challenge, but it will take a little while. Our progress will be incremental as we improve systems and establish their safety.

What advice do you got for others who need to start flying autonomous drones?

Do not wait. I would get into it right away and learn the opportunities and challenges. The key, IMO, is developing the proper human-machine mix so that we take advantage of the strengths the human and the machine bring to the table. If folks recognize that, they can position themselves for great opportunities down the road.

What breakthroughs in the drone industry are you looking forward to?

I work on Detect And Avoid (DAA) systems, so I would say those are the ones that get me most excited. Along with that comes, Command and Control (C2). As we advance with both, we start enabling widespread Beyond Visual Line Of Sight (BVLOS) operations, which is where a tremendous amount of potential lies. Such activities will allow us to find a lost hiker, produce better crops for less money, etc. They provide many humanitarian and economic benefits. Helping people is, in the end, what it is all about.

Beyond Visual Line of Sight Technology is Here

Autonomy is the other great frontier. As autonomy advances, we will develop systems that are safer and more efficient, thus enhancing the benefits of these technologies even more.

What does your drone gear seem? What are you flying?

I don’t fly my own but have played with others. I generally work on developing supporting technologies.

Have you ever before crashed a quadcopter? What was your unfortunate experience?

I have not but have been on projects where that has happened. Because we are always cautious whenever we fly, we have never had any injuries. I cannot think of any worst experience, but it never feels good when a system fails.

Where do you find smart cities and drones headed in five years? ten years?

Man in Silhouette Watching Quadcopter Drone in the Air Over House

I believe that this will be incremental. In 5 years we will see more automated drones operating in cities, broader use of transportation as a service, and limited utilization of unmanned aircraft in cities. The latter include urban air mobility, which will be enhanced by optionally piloted aircraft that will leverage autonomy and will have a pilot “over the loop” to ensure safety.

In 10 years, these applications will rely less on human intervention and more on autonomy/artificial intelligence. For operations in which the consequences of a significant failure are severe (e.g., fatalities or major injuries are possible), human oversight will still be needed (IMO). For other operations where the consequences are not as severe, execution will likely occur with minimal human supervision.

What do you feel about the present drone law state?

I think it is challenging. People get very concerned about privacy, especially, given that drones are enabling. However, we have dealt with privacy for a long time.

I think the key is engaging the right stakeholders to get everyone on the same page. UND is leading in this area, and with time, I think people will come to realize that drones are not a significant intrusion in their lives. However, they are new, and that can cause concern.

What do you believe the biggest misunderstandings is of unmanned drones to smart cities?

I believe the biggest misconception is that we are going to darken the sky. Perhaps, one day, operations will be that intense. However, it will take some time to develop systems that provide the appropriate level of safety.

Air taxis - is it a reality?

Our Part 107 pilots fly demonstration flights to exercise the radar’s capabilities and, to date, they have not crashed a drone! 😎

EHang Passenger Drone

I see these becoming a reality in the next five years, but the systems will have a pilot overseeing the flights. With time, dependence on human will decrease. I believe that we are quite a ways out from having trips with no human on board.

What have been a few particularly memorable drone events you have participated?

I have been fortunate enough to be part of many serious advances. We conducted flight tests at UND in 2009 and 2010 to test our DAA systems and in the process provided information regarding flooding along the Red River. That information was helpful to Oslo, MN, which was surrounded by floodwaters, and to the North Central River Forecast Center, which is responsible for forecasting levels for the Red River.

Also, we conducted flight tests in conjunction with MITRE, NASA-Langley, and other partners. That effort was incredibly rewarding because of the tremendous partnerships we had.

Some of what I think will be the most memorable events will be what is happening right now, and we develop a BVLOS wide-area network from Grand Forks to Fargo. We are currently testing the technologies for this network. It is designed to enable broad commercial usage of drone. It, of course, is ground-breaking.

What has the unmanned aircraft been able to do to smart cities which would not otherwise be possible in dumb cities?

Perhaps the massive impact is urban air mobility – a transformation of how people move within a city. The improvement in efficiency can have incredible effects (people will devote much less time to transportation and, thus, can accomplish more in a given day. Other impacts include increased safety (the autonomous system can help eliminate traffic accidents) and more efficient delivery of materials.

What are a few of the most inventive ways you have seen quads getting used?

Great question. I see people utilizing them for things I had not thought of (e.g., monitoring bees). I had also not considered initially using drones in delivery. When the idea of a wholly revamped delivery process (not just the last portion of delivery, but using autonomy throughout product distribution) was presented to me, it took me about 5 minutes to recognize that it was likely where we are going. We are not there yet, but I expect we will get there.

DHL Package Copter Readying for Takeoff

Why should one think about getting drones to monitor and manage smart cities?

They will enhance safety and productivity. In moving with this direction, however, one should have a complete understanding of the challenges and opportunities.

If someone were to tell you, “I do not need any autonomous drone in my town,” how will you respond?

I would ask them about their concerns. Every voice needs to be heard. The point is to enrich people’s lives, not create problems.

How cities can make sure citizen’s privacy and safety if they integrate these unmanned systems?

It is driven by testing and evaluation to validate that these systems are safe. Safety is the responsibility of the FAA. It is being done through (including, but not limited to) research efforts (such as those within the ASSURE COE), through work by the FAA test sites, and work within the Integration Pilot Program.

Privacy Highway Sign Image

Privacy is much more in the domain of the DOJ. It is a critical policy issue, though in many ways unmanned aircraft will not have that big of an impact here since many cities have already distributed cameras.

The key is managing the data so that they cannot be used to look into private locations, etc. If there is a legal reason, data could be used to identify someone who may have committed a crime, etc. To ensure privacy, one avoids producing any personally-identifying information from images unless it is needed for something like an investigation.

In the future, how much of an effect do you believe autonomous drones might have on our daily lives?

I believe that they will be part of a massive transformation of how we do many things (transportation, delivery of goods and services, infrastructure inspection, emergency response, etc.). Many autonomous systems will play a role in this, but drones will be a critical piece. One day people will not be fazed when a drone delivers a hot burrito to someone for lunch.

Where can we spot you when you are not behind drones?

I have many interests. I try to find as much time for my family as I can. We love to camp, fish, etc. So, if able, you will find my family and I out on a lake! 🙂

Check out Mark Askelson on the web!

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Drone Role in Smart Cities Interview

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