September 17, 2018

Can Autonomous Helicopters Save Traffic Deaths?

By Paul-Matthew Zamsky, Head of Strategic Partnerships at Waycare

On August 27, Fox News reported that a small plane had made an emergency landing on a freeway near Las Vegas. While no one was injured, it blocked morning commuters and caused a major traffic jam. The incident was visible in the Waycare platform overseen by traffic management and emergency services alike.

Let’s suppose that the pilot had been seriously injured – and perhaps occupants in nearby cars as well. How could emergency medical teams get through to the scene quickly enough through blocked traffic? In cases of traffic accidents, response time is critical to treat serious injuries. 

Here is a possible solution. 

There is a great deal of talk about autonomous vehicles. But what about autonomous helicopters? Writing in the New York Times, Cade Metz described a test flight at a tiny airport near San Francisco, in which a red and white helicopter lifted into the air and hovered.

There is a plan to offer a new emergency service, starting next January, to move police and medical workers over the San Joaquin Valley. That tiny helicopter had a small black cube on its nose.  It was operated by a pilot. But SkyRise, a Silicon Valley startup, plans to equip small helicopters with hardware and software that allow for autonomous flight, “leaning on many of the same technologies that power driverless cars”. No need for armies of expensive helicopter pilots. Mass produce small inexpensive helicopters, equip them with autonomous software and hardware – and zip responders quickly to any emergency, no matter how snarled the traffic is.  Such helicopters could one day replace conventional ambulances.

A number of companies are working on autonomous helicopters, including Sikorsky, and Xwing, and even Boeing.  And Uber has a business plan for “flying taxi services” that will ultimately remove pilots completely. 

It is highly unlikely that traffic jams will improve in the future. And it is highly likely that traffic accidents will in many cases continue to snarl traffic.  We have all seen ambulances and police desperately struggle to weave through jams to reach accident sites.

Will autonomous helicopters soon zip first responders to the scene,  saving time and perhaps many lives?  

The developers of the autonomous helicopters are working in the same way that innovators of self-driven vehicles work – operate the vehicles experimentally, collect massive data using onboard sensors, and use the data to improve the software and enhance safety. 

Many passengers who fly on civilian airliners do not realize how autonomous planes are already.  For example, Asian carrier Asiana requires pilots to use autopilot as much as possible.  According to WIRED magazine:   “Asiana prohibits the first officer from landing the plane by flying it, it must be automated.   The captain is prohibited from manually flying above 3,000 feet.”

Post By Paul-Matthew Zamsky, Head of Strategic Partnerships at Waycare

[1] Cade Metz.  “Unmanned flight: The next frontier”, New York Times, International Edition, Sept. 4, 2018, p. 9

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