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Harvard Making Robotics Fly: The Challenges in Pioneering Drone Tech

For the past few months, Aerotas has been helping Harvard University organize and host their extremely successful Making Robotics Fly event.  This event allowed a number of pioneering companies to demo their drones in front of hundreds of people and industry professionals in a way that was safe, responsible, and entertaining.  But getting there was no easy task. 

Spectators wait behind safety netting to watch the Drone Racing League

Spectators wait behind safety netting to watch the Drone Racing League

Before getting into details, a huge thank you goes out to our demonstrators , who all worked tirelessly to make this event successful.  DigiNovations showed us what it takes to run an aerial production company, and CyPhy Works showed off their innovative LVL 1 consumer drone.  Top Flight Tech wowed the crowd with their massive, gasoline powered, long-endurance drone.  Matternet staged the first ever drone delivery in Harvard Stadium, allowing the deans of the Harvard Business School and School of Engineering and Applied Sciences to deliver t-shirts to each other.  Finally, the Drone Racing League hosted a spectacular finale, with pilots Mr. Steele and UmmaGawd showing off their aerobatic and racing skills.  

A successful drone program is about so much more than just buying a drone and learning to fly.  You also need to have the right safety procedures, understand the regulatory environment, get proper insurance coverage, and deal with all of the paperwork and logistics required to host a successful and responsible event.  But the drone industry is new, and there is no standard plan for how to go about this.  To pull the event off, we had to work with a number of partners that were willing to innovate and develop new practices for the industry.  

DRL Pilot UmmaGawd takes off with his ImmersionRC Vortex

DRL Pilot UmmaGawd takes off with his ImmersionRC Vortex

First and foremost, safety was the number one priority.  But unlike traditional sports, there are no clear operating rules for how to keep people safe while still putting on a good show.  In the past, people have confined drones into small, netted cages, preventing the drones from showing off their capabilities.  We decided to do something entirely new, and put all of the spectators in a netted tent, giving the aircraft much more space to fly and be seen.  And all of this had to go on top of robust safety and contingency procedures to make sure that we never had to even rely on the tent. 

As safe as we made everything, it was still important to make sure the event was insured.  Thankfully, Overwatch Insurance and Global Aerospace were willing to partner with us as pioneers in this industry to ensure Harvard was fully covered.  Most people don’t realize that drones, which can be considered “aircraft,” fall outside of most general insurance plans.  Thankfully, we were able to write out some new documents to make that happen too. 

On top of all of this comes regulation.  As anyone in the industry knows, the laws surrounding drones are incredibly complex, often unclear, and occasionally contradictory.  With 333 exemptions, the CFR, COAs, NOTAMs, NPRMs, and dozens of conflicting opinions, finding the right set of policies and procedures to do this event safely and legally, while still making it happen, was extremely challenging.  The strictest interpretations of the law may have tied up the event in so much paperwork and bureaucracy that we would have been lucky to make it happen within two years.  Thankfully, with Harvard as a non-profit, and all of the demonstrators volunteering to fly on a Saturday without being paid, we were able to avoid many of the restrictions of a commercial event.

The Matternet One UAV just after safety test-flights in Harvard Stadium

The Matternet One UAV just after safety test-flights in Harvard Stadium

Finally, it was critical to make the event entertaining.  A safe, uneventful drone flight is what the industry wants out of the technology.  But it can, quite frankly, be boring.  Thankfully the demonstrating speakers and our fearless host, The Drone Girl, put on a spectacular show and kept the crowd excited. 

Over the past few months, we have continued to learn volumes about what it takes to actually make drones work.  Even with the right hardware, you need the right set of software, policies, procedures, manuals, laws, insurance, and paperwork all set up to deliver in a way that is both responsible and effective.  Our goal at Aerotas is to help people like Harvard push this industry forward and allow it to realize its full potential in the most effective way possible, and we are proud to be a part of this.