April 11, 2020

Gotta go autonomous

by Vadim Barausov

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In our extraordinary pursuit to avoid risky human contacts could we use self-flying drones and self-driving cars?

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The answer is positive, for sure. COVID-19 is changing a lot about mobility. People are staying home, turning away public transport and minimizing personal contacts. But they need groceries and medicine and goods to be physically delivered to them and they should move to some places sometimes. How to do it without a chance to get a virus (no offense to couriers and drivers)? Well, a big industry of autonomous transport is after it, but for immediate solutions it needs some hacking.

For years the most hyped theme was self-driving cars. Thanks to media we had these futuristic pictures, inspirational articles and overly enthusiastic TV stories. There are a plenty of startups, attracting billions of investors’ money and promising the future without drivers, and not to forget Tesla and Google and auto giants. But here we are with the virus at the gates, restricting world mobility, and where are our autonomous cars? Still in trials somehow.

“The hype around self-driving cars has been huge the last couple of years, but it is calming down and the industry is realising that it will take a couple of years before the technology is ready and fully developed so that autonomous cars can drive in all environments all around the world without a safety driver inside the vehicle”, says Harri Santamala, CEO of Sensible 4, Finnish company behind self-driving shuttle bus GACHA.

Talking about COVID-19 influence, he thinks that self-driving transport is really helpful. “When transporting people with symptoms, they would not endanger the driver in an autonomous vehicle. And then again, when transporting people with no symptoms, the social distancing is easier done when there’s very few passengers on board. This is economically doable with autonomous vehicles», Harri adds.

While hoping for more progress with cars, let's look at the bright present when we have a certain solution to fight with the virus – UAVs or drones. This kind of aircraft was at the forefront from the start. In China and other countries drones were used on occasions such as need for critical medical supplies, disinfecting common areas, temperature check, inspection and broadcast.

The most prospective area is common delivery by drones. For example, Wing, the unit of Alphabet (Google's parent company), has reported a huge rise in business volumes due to the crisis. The company is operating delivery drones in US state Virginia, and some foreign countries. They added new vendors and expanded the items customers can order to better serve people during the epidemic like coffee and pastry. In Russia all online delivery services are overwhelmed with a tsunami of orders and lack of couriers. So some shops and cafes are trying to use drones on their own to deliver meals and drinks to local clients.

For now, dealing with drones has some difficulties. The regulation is very strict and the application process for using UAVs is too obstructed. Drones are unable to fly in bad weather, so snow, rain, strong wind are unambiguous obstacles that can disable the process. There are problems with delivery to multi-storey buildings, big offices, since the organization of this process requires the writing of special complex software. The drone is not protected, therefore, it is subject to theft along with the cargo carried by interception. The software, which monitors and controls the operation of the device, is also still imperfect, and has “holes” due to which there is a high probability of cyberattacks on the system.

That’s why it is the right challenge for real innovators who can offer hardware and software solutions for best implementation of drones during the coronacrisis. Such hackers are participating inThe Global Hack, online-hackathon, started April 9. One of them is Rehan Raj, Indian boy with drone-related project. He and participants all over the world are working in multidisciplinary teams with mentors to develop MVPs within tracks inspired by the UN sustainability goals, including sustainability, governance, education, environment, mental health & solidarity in action.