European Business: Flyability manufactures drones which can be operated in very confined spaces. What are some of the applications your drones have been used for so far, and what was the most spectacular deployment, a Flyability drone has experienced?
Patrick Thévoz: Our goal is to send drones into spaces where it would be too dangerous and costly to send humans. Our most spectacular missions include surveying the inside of Alpine glaciers, which our drones accessed through small crevices, to mapping mines thousands of meters underground and the inside of nuclear reactors. Beyond the engineering prowess, we are proudest of the applications in which our technology has been able to reduce the risk of human endangerment. We have worked on numerous missions, in which fatalities had occurred before our technology existed, and it fills us with joy to tell our customers that there is now a safer way.
European Business: Many are concerned about public safety with respect to drones, especially considering that this technology may come to be much more widely used in the future. How do you address these fears, and do you believe that drones will ever be as commonplace as cars are today?
Patrick Thévoz: Even though they are commonplace, cars are highly regulated in terms of safety features and are confined to well-defined circulation corridors. The same is happening and will continue to happen with drones. However, there is an inherent safety risk to flying as opposed to navigating on the ground, as engine failures would very often result in the device crashing to the ground. That makes reliability requirements much more critical. Due to their small size and payload capacity, small drones are not equipped with the technical redundancy and safety procedures which are mandatory for larger aircraft. I expect technology and regulations to evolve in parallel, and ultimately, I envision a world where drones can indeed navigate safely in the airspace – but with the exception of some limited environments and applications, this won’t occur in the world of tomorrow yet, but later!
European Business: Some have warned about potential drone misuse for the purpose of illegal surveillance, others like Elon Musk have gone yet further and warned that drones could even be armed with lethal weapons. What measures does Flyability take to make sure its technology won’t be abused?
Patrick Thévoz: The public has a lot of concern about drones, which possibly stems from the military origins of the technology. Radio-controlled airplanes have been around for more than half a century, so I don't see small drones as a fundamentally new threat, but drones make the technology available to everyone and some may indeed misuse it. At Flyability, we manufacture very small drones (40 cm in diameter) so that they can enter into confined spaces through manholes. Thus the payload capacity of our drones is very limited, and it would be next to impossible to equip them with a lethal weapon, since they can only carry a few grams of extra weight due to the already installed inspection sensors.
Our devices are actually easier to operate than most toy drones, and thanks to the collision-tolerance of our products [...] a piloting mistake has no consequences. Patrick Thévoz
European Business: There are drones for everyday use which can be purchased online for a few hundred EUR. Could lay people with little previous drone-flying experience also safely steer one of your drones or is your device considerably more complicated to operate?
Patrick Thévoz: Our devices are actually easier to operate than most toy drones, and thanks to the collision-tolerance of our products, which is indispensable for accurately navigating them in the most confined indoor spaces, a piloting mistake has no consequences. Operators need a lot of experience, though, in order to know which parts of a site need to be inspected, from what angle and whether the pictures that were obtained are sufficient evidence to prove that the inspected asset is safe. Most of our customers are not drone pilots and our Elios drones are the first aircraft, they ever operate.
European Business: Your drones are designed to access normally inaccessible places. So far, however, they are confined to the air. Could your technology, with some modifications, also be used to investigate remote locations under water?
Patrick Thévoz: The physics and dynamics of underwater robotics are very different. For instance, weight does not matter that much when you’re in the water and ballasts can regulate depth with much lower energy than propellers. Different machines will be efficient underwater and in the air.
Interview: Julian Miller | Pictures: Flyability; ©www.tinasturzenegger.com