U.K. drone company sets flying record that could be a big boost for autonomy

You probably don’t need us to tell you that drones are going to be huge. Whether it’s deliveries, mapping, surveillance, or myriad other applications, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have the opportunity to be transformative in our lives. But for that to happen they will need to be let off their leash by regulatory authorities — and prove that they can be trusted to be used in a way that doesn’t abuse the faith that we are putting in them.

Lately, it seems that authorities around the world are starting to loosen up. Recently, the U.S. government introduced a new drone experimentation program that loosens certain restrictions on 10 tech giants. Now the U.K. government has awarded SenSat, the country’s largest drone data provider, permission to carry out flights beyond their pilot’s visual line of sight inside complex airspace, which is a major limiting factor in current commercial drone operations. As a result, SenSat this week set a new record, with a fixed-wing drone flying 7.5 miles (12 kilometers) beyond the pilot’s visible line of sight, breaking the country’s existing record by a factor of 10.

While other such flights have taken place on offshore in very remote areas, carrying out one this ambitious in one of the world’s most complex and crowded airspaces is an enormous step forward for drone operations.

“The largest challenge was regulatory rather than technical,” James Dean, founder of SenSat, told Digital Trends. “That is why it is so significant — a lot of the technologies exist in raw format, so being able to be accommodated by a fairly slow-moving regulatory framework, and indeed accelerated, really highlighted the U.K. government’s [focus] on this.”

sensat drone visible line of sight

For the flight, the U.K.’s Civilian Aviation Authority set up a temporary danger zone, barring other aircraft from entering the airspace during the 40 minutes in which the record-breaking flight was carried out.

According to Dean, the main technical challenges of the flight involved maintaining communications links and battery life. Communications remained at 99.8 percent uptime during the flight, thanks to the drone being linked into the 3G cellular network. Since this is the same connection as mobile phones, it provides strong connectivity wherever there is a mobile signal. The drone, meanwhile, had a possible 120 minutes of maximum flight time using its batteries, meaning that the record-breaking flight consumed just one-third of its potential flight time.

“Drones to date have been largely stunted in their impact because there is still a significant regulatory need to have a human supervise the autonomous robot,” Dean continued. “The point in an autonomous robot is to increase machine automation and reduce manual labor. This allows us to do that at over 30 times.”

Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: inflatable backpacks and robotic submarines

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the Web this week. You can't buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!

A library at your fingertips: The 101 best free Kindle books

You shouldn't always have to pay for a good read. Here are our picks for the best free Kindle books, so you don't have to sort through thousands of titles on Amazon and Google Play. We divided them into various genres, so dive in.
Movies & TV

The best movies on Netflix in August 2018, from ‘Her’ to ‘Jurassic Park’

Save yourself from hours wasted scrolling through Netflix's massive library by checking out our picks for the streamer's best movies available right now, whether you're into explosive action, subdued humor, or anything in between.
Movies & TV

'Prime'-time TV: Here are the best shows on Amazon Prime right now

Amazon Prime brings more perks than just free two-day shipping. Subscribers get access to a huge library of TV shows to stream at no extra cost. Here are our favorite TV shows currently available on Amazon Prime.
Emerging Tech

Buying on a budget? Here’s all the best tech you can snag for $25 or less

We live in a world where you can get a cheeseburger for $1, a functioning computer for $5, and thousands of HD movies for $10 -- so it stands to reason that you should be able to pick up some pretty sweet gear for $25.
Emerging Tech

Science says waste beer could help us live on Mars

Scientists at the University of Colorado Boulder have developed a new super-insulating gel, created from beer waste, which could one day be used for building greenhouse-like habitats on Mars.
Emerging Tech

Engineers have made a new type of lithium battery that won’t explode

While statistically rare, the lithium-ion batteries used in mobile devices have been known to burst into flames. Researchers from University of Michigan have been working to change that.
Emerging Tech

Genetically engineered bacteria paint microscopic masterpieces

By engineering E. coli bacteria to respond to light, scientists at the University of Rome have guided it like tiny drones toward patterns that depict Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece, the Mona Lisa.
Emerging Tech

Elon Musk’s Boring Company wants to dig a tunnel to Dodger Stadium

Elon Musk's Boring Company wants to build a high-speed transportation tunnel connecting Dodger Stadium to a nearby Metro station. The system would run 150-mph passenger pods between the stadium and a terminus to the west.
Emerging Tech

Watch as a ‘lifeguard drone’ rescues a swimmer struggling at sea

These days, drones are finding a range of roles in a myriad of fields. Lifeguards, for example, are making use of the drone's ability to quickly deploy flotation devices while also offering an eye in the sky to survey the scene.
Emerging Tech

Wish you could fly? Here are the best drones on the market right now

To help you navigate the increasingly large and ever-changing landscape of consumer UAVs, here's a no-nonsense rundown of the best drones you can buy right now
Emerging Tech

The best drone photos from around the world

Most of today's drones come equipped with high-end cameras, which are quickly revolutionizing the world of aerial photography as we know it. Here are some of the best drone photos from around the world.
Emerging Tech

Experiment suggests that the best robot bosses could be jerks

Researchers have been investigating how future robot bosses can coax the most productivity out of us flesh-and-blood employees. The sad answer? Quite possibly by behaving like jerks.
Emerging Tech

VR experience shows caregivers what it’s like to live with Alzheimer’s disease

Los Angeles-based VR startup Embodied Labs has developed a virtual experience that puts users in the shoes of a person with Alzheimer’s disease, the most common type of dementia in the U.S.