Drones, sensors and the Internet of Things – Simon McCalla

18th March 2015

This month an influential committee of the House of Lords met to discuss the rapid rise in ownership of civilian ‘drones’ and the safety, social and economic impact these are having on the UK.

Recognising that this is an exciting and innovative industry from which the UK is already starting to benefit financially, they also questioned the challenges of having many inexperienced pilots taking small mechanised craft and flying them in the UK’s open air space. To address some of these concerns, they have recommended that the UK consider a national register of civilian drones, along the same lines as a firearms register.

Last week I found myself standing in a muddy corner of Oxford looking across some ragged grassland at the edge of Hinksey Stream, a small tributary of the river Thames that flows around the western edge of Oxford and borders the Hogacre Common Eco Park. It’s clear from the debris caught in the upper branches of the bushes that this stream, like many others, floods during heavy winter rain, threatening not only the park, but also the nearby railway and housing. Now, the stream meanders quietly through the reeds a long way from the top of its bank.

Our role in the project is to provide the hardware and software ‘backbone’ to the network

We’re here as part of a project that we’re running in conjunction with Oxfordshire start-up ‘LoveHz’, developing and testing Oxford’s first network of flood sensors: small, cheap ultrasound sensors that ‘ping’ the river once a minute. Dotted around Oxford creating a grid, these sensors send back minute-by-minute river levels from across the city. Our role in the project is to provide the hardware and software ‘backbone’ to the network, using radio frequencies freed up from the shutdown of the UK’s analogue TV service (known as TV Whitespace). Using our software layer, data from this network makes its way onto the internet, where it can be analysed and displayed through browsers and on smartphones.

We’re trying something a little different though: recognising that there aren’t that many obvious attachment points for new sensors on this river, we’ve chosen to ‘fly’ one of our sensors into location instead. Using a consumer drone, with an ultrasound sensor mounted underneath, we’re attempting to see whether this could be a viable option for creating many more monitoring points as well as whether all the various frequencies of radio communication will play nicely together.

With careful piloting our drone makes it over the river and almost instantly, river level readings start appearing on our interactive map. The data’s a little unreliable as the drone is not configured for millimetre accuracy above ground, but the basic principle has worked far better than we expected. We chat excitedly about possibilities for monitoring air quality and how the flying might be automated rather than relying on a pilot. We realise however that much of this is in the future, with many technical and safety hurdles to be crossed. Piloting drones is not our core business and some of these challenges we’ll leave to other, more qualified specialists.

One that has enabled the UK to become one of the most connected and successful e-economies globally.

Back in the office we realise that we do have some very valuable experience to add to the debate around drone safety. For almost 20 years we have been running the registry and infrastructure behind the .uk domain, one of the most trusted and innovative top-level internet domains in the world. One that has enabled the UK to become one of the most connected and successful e-economies globally. This hasn’t come about by accident: in the UK we have very light-touch rules around domain ownership and usage. We simply ask owners of domains (known as ‘registrants’) to provide accurate contact details, not to use sexual-crime terms in their domain name and not to use the domain for criminal activities. That aside, you’re free to do what you want with your domain: to communicate, sell, excite, shock, innovate or simply publish photos of your cat.

We believe that this has made the .uk domain stand out as a technology leader and has led to the UK becoming one of the largest country-code domains on the planet. With this in mind my thoughts turn back to the House of Lords committee and their debate around how best to manage an area of technology that excites many, but raises concerns for others. I think there’s a future for the UK to be a real leader in drone technology, just as we are with the internet, where we can innovate and drive with appropriate accountability and safety measures in place. I hope the committee listens to some of the success stories from the UK internet and beyond.