Self-Piloted passenger drones coming to Australia soon: What are the risks?

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Credit: ID 62410910 © Alain Lacroix |

I love the idea of passenger drones and flying cars. I grew up watching “The Jetsons” on Saturday morning’s thinking that would be us one day. It’s funny when you think about it, some of the engineers who are putting these vehicles together today would have been growing up thinking the same thing as me. Long have movies, TV been a place where brilliant people see something and say “you know what I can make that for real” and they do.

Passenger drones are not quite here yet though which I am admittedly very disappointed about (which I am sure you would all have guessed) but honestly they are becoming reality. Especially if you are talking about passenger drones. A report by Deloitte “Elevating the future of mobility” from January last year is an interesting read and discussing some of the challenges that the industry faces. In the report/article it predicts that we could see Passenger drones as early as 2020, some form of traditional flying cars between 2020-2022 and revolutionary vehicles could become a reality by 2025. As Deloitte indicated these vehicles will have some big regulatory and safety hurdles to clear before they will be able to become a true reality but testing has already begun,

A half-plane half drone nicknamed “Cora” has already been secretly been testing in New Zealand, it can carry two passengers for a distance of up to 100KM at a top speed of around 18 kilometres per hour. It has vertical take-off and landing but works much like a plane once in the air with one rear propeller pushing it forward. The company expects that they will have “Cora” passenger drones as taxi’s over Los Angeles by 2020.

In Australia, we are destined for an Uber Air service to start in Melbourne by 2023 (some predict it could be as early as 2023. This service has been indicated to be a short airport to CBD service initially (19km) that can take 25-60 minutes in a car will take 10 minutes in the new services. That is a massive reduction in time especially in those peak times, I guess its success will come down to costs. In my opinion, if they can provide these trips for $100 or less I think just the convenience alone would make them viable and honestly, I would do it at least once just for the experience factor. In reality though if these services can be provided long term at a price very comparable to that of normal Uber trips (obviously at a slight premium) this could be an extremely successful operation.

Uber is not alone several more operators are entering the market (or at least planning too) such as Ehang 184, Airbus Vahana, Boeing PAV, Bell Nexus, Intel Volocopter E-volo, SureFly just to mention a few. The idea of removing a 1-hour commute and replacing it with a quick 10-minute drone flight to the office sound awesome to probably millions of people living in cities around the world but have we considered all of the risks? I am not talking about the risks of crashing or systems failure but from my perspective, I am thinking about cyber security threats.

If you look at many of these passenger drones they are heavily controlled by technology and are reliant on a lot of information from their own internal sensors/technology but will rely on a lot of external systems as well such as 4G/5G technology, radar and many talk a mesh framework that will allow them to know where other drones are to navigate each other with ease. With external access like this bring great risks that I have not yet seen covered. What happens if a malicious actor hacks the mesh network? Just imagine what they could do, remove objects from the systems path so you have drones running into buildings or other drones (one way to assassinate someone), what about if they gained control of these devices (most are autonomous) so they could then use them to destroy targets like communications, critical infrastructure or even be used by terrorists to send dozens of these into a crowded place to inflict harm against modern society. If you think about it there is a lot of possibilities but what can we do to better protect these passenger drones as they start to become a reality.

The first step is quite simple, make sure that all of these systems can be manually controlled by passengers not fully autonomous, secondly, think of security in the first instance. Don’t try to add security to these systems later, bake them in from the start, and truly test them (I am sure there will be lots of security professionals/Hackers who would love to test these systems for you). How about ensuring all communications are encrypted (seems like a bit of a no brainer), at minimum, this will ensure we have some control.

It’s going to be a big challenge to ensure that these autonomous systems are well protected for both autonomous cars and passenger drones but we need to do this to ensure we can keep ourselves safe. We all know that no systems are 100% safe from cyber-attack, that’s just the way the world is but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do everything we can to make them stronger. 5G will be one advancement that will add further challenges, the speed of connectivity will be required to enable these devices to work well but that speed also allows for fast methods of attack. Then we will have cheap IoT devices that will be used by these systems to allow them to gather further information about their surroundings. These devices will not have any (or minimal) protections leaving the wholes systems at risk.

We are certainly going to have a challenging future with all things interconnected but we can’t mess around with things like passenger drones or autonomous cars the costs if we do will be too great. So let’s start to come together as an industry or community as a whole and make sure that these protections are in place to keep us all safe. Oh and if any of my readers are working with one of the many drone start-ups I would love to come and have a test flight you just tell me where J.

Till next time…

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