Pilot by remote control
At the far end of one of the huge hangars in Ljungbyhed, the tables have been set and the food has been served. As the 50 or so people of all ages, mostly men, gather around roast beef sandwiches and light beer, the conversations grow louder, bouncing off the vaulted ceiling and concrete floor. It is the start of a new semester and the launch of the new study programme “Commercial Drone Operator”.
“This profession will become a true helicopter-killer. Flying a helicopter will be considered an environmental and capital destruction since a drone can perform the same task at a tenth of the cost”, says Janne Österwall, who applied for the programme after having worked for several years as an army officer and a helicopter pilot.
“But, for starters, it’s damn fun”, he says.
Janne Österwall is one of the more experienced among the 35 enrolled students. But the feeling of breaking new ground is noticeable in many of them, as is the almost boyish engineering interest.
One with a passion for technology, who will also act as a visiting lecturer on the programme, is Rudolf Tornerhjelm who runs a large forest and agricultural estate, Vrams Gunnarstorp. He puts his sandwich plate aside and picks up his phone.
“Look here. This map consists of 600 drone images that were compiled in five minutes. The light-green fields need water. The purple spots indicate eutrophication. This allows me to economise with the use of fertiliser”, he says while scrolling to another picture in his phone’s drone app:
“Do you know what these red spots are? They are deer, captured by the drone’s thermal imaging camera at night. This way, I can find injured wild game, for example. But the thermal camera can also be used to find missing people.”
Agriculture is only one of several industries expected to change in view of new drone technology. Other areas could include measuring snow depths in mountain areas or gathering traffic information in a major city. The expression “The only limit is your imagination” seems to apply here, as the industry is so new that it barely exists. Therefore, after completing the programme, most students will probably go on to starting their own businesses.
We hear the crackling sound of a microphone as the programme director in Ljungbyhed Tommy Magnusson takes the floor:
“Welcome everyone! Today, aviation history is made. This is the first study programme of its kind. And the need for it is huge.”
He explains that, since the regulations have not been not fully developed, Ljungbyhed Air is cooperating with legislators from Sweden and the EU. What give-way rules are to apply? Any special lighting requirements? How are drones and other aircrafts to share the airspace?
“OK, once you have finished, we would like to welcome you outside for a demonstration of different types of drones”, says Tommy Magnusson.
Socialising over food, followed by a demonstration of drones. Grey clouds hang heavy over Skäralid’s blue-green hills that fade away into the horizon. On the pavement stands a long table of drones. By the looks of it, they remind us of the ones we have seen in hobby stores, but as we walk around the tables we learn, from the owners, that both their appliances (the cameras) and their “insides” (the software), are significantly sharper.
One type of multi-rotor drone appears to be used for shooting movies, and requires three-person participation in real-time: one who flies, one who focuses the image and a third who sets the aperture and sharpness.
A little farther away, several drones of a larger model stand ready for take-off. One of them, which can almost be compared to a shrunken helicopter, is about to be presented by CyboAero. Because it can fly farther than any battery-powered model, it can be controlled when out of sight to surveil coasts and detect smuggling.
One reason why drone technology is now making its big breakthrough is the improved computer capacity. A drone can now stabilise itself without flying around like a slippery soap bar through the air, says lecturer in risk management Johan Bergström, who was commissioned by the dean of the Faculty of Engineering Viktor Öwall to relaunch the school’s aviation research. Since 2011, when Sydney Dekker resigned as professor at TFHS, the University has not had a professor in the subject.
“It involves all types of research – from sensor development, to security and training issues”, he says.
The two-stroke engine begins to rattle and the propeller blades start turning in the cool September air. The drone takes off like an abruptly awoken insect.
“Oh look”, says someone. “How beautiful!”
Information about the programme:
The commercial drone operator programme is a new one-year, full-time study programme, conducted by Folkuniversitetet in cooperation with the Faculty of Engineerings’ School of Aviation in Ljungbyhed (TFHS), Lund University, Ljungbyhed Air and the university college of higher vocational studies, Malmö Yrkeshögskola. The programme includes study of law and entrepreneurship, aviation theory and technical maintenance, as well as hardware and software development.