Delivery drone pilots prefer manual flights to autonomous ones. Which is better?

Delivery drone pilots prefer manual flights to autonomous ones. Which is better?

Delivery drone pilots say they prefer flying their delivery routes manually. It might not be surprising for a human to want to be in control of an operation that they are leading — but it’s certainly ironic giving the inherent definition of drones is to be autonomous.

A drone in its true sense (unlike most toy drones) is capable of flying pre-programmed routes, able to takeoff and land without human intervention. Of course, a small percentage of drone pilots actually fly this way — most still use controllers and sticks to give the pilot control over where the drone goes.

And a study DroneUp and Virginia’s Center for Innovative Technology (CIT) proved that most drone pilots prefer manual flights — they want their hands on the controller.

Drone solutions provider DroneUp and CIT in April conducted a series of tests designed to determine how drones can assist with delivery during times of crisis. They executed 90 various types of drone flights, all with variable on the vacant campus of St. Paul’s College, in Lawrenceville, Virginia. Variables included how far away targets were, types and number of obstacles, pre-programmed vs. human types of flights, flying at night vs. day and more.

While the goal of the study wasn’t focused solely on human vs. non-human-controlled flights — the lessons learned about the differences between a human at the reigns vs. a computer provide served up some interesting findings.

Among the biggest differences? Flight time.

“This is due to higher programmed altitudes and slower speeds compared to pilots flying manually,” according to the report.

The pre-programmed flights, where the drone automatically flies to and from the target) took a full minute (24%) longer than human-controlled flights.

There were two major factors that contributed to varying flight times.

Speed: Pilot flew to the target .5 mph faster than pre-programmed flights and 2.7 mph faster on the return trips.

“This did not cause any issues but if the payload were heavier or the wind was stronger, speeding may have become a factor,” according to the report.

The test also found that automatic flights had a learning curve navigating the “pause for landing” and resume features.

Adding to that difference, the remaining 18 seconds came from pilots manually flying faster to and from the targets than the pre-programmed flights were programmed to fly.

Thirty-four of those extra seconds occurred over the target because the arrival altitude was higher, on average, than manual flights — thus it takes longer for the drone to descend. And speaking of finding those targets…

Finding the targets where drones needed to make deliveries: With only the benefit of a map, the pilots sometimes found it difficult to find the target. Sometimes they were familiar with the map but were
confused about which target was actually the right target

And perhaps unsurprisingly. Automatic flights are significantly more consistent than human-flown flights.

The following table shares data on a test where drones had the same targets, but one flight (3A in the table) was pre-programmed and the other was manual (3B in the table. Here’s what that test found:

drone pilots prefer manual DroneUp study

For example, in one test, two flights (manual vs. automatic) were both flown at approximately 200 feet altitude. The manual flight wandered a bit along the way and back, adding 30 feet to the overall trip. Then again, the manual flight was still faster, because the pilot flew manually at a maximum speed of 25 mph while the pre-programmed flight was set to a maximum of 16 mph.

Human operated vs. pre-programmed drone flights: which is better?

“The jury is out on whether, pre-programming the flights brings value,” according to a report from DroneUp. “The flight paths were certainly straighter but the battery consumption and overall flight times were also greater.

The report also added that by tuning the altitudes and flight speeds, pre-programmed flights could prove to be better due to the consistency of path and speed and elimination of pilot error.

But here’s the kicker.

“Pilots expressed a preference for manual flights,” according to the report. “Part of that comes from resistance to the ‘black box’ effect where pilots don’t know what the software is doing and don’t trust it. Part of
it is an ego thing where their skill is only on display if they are flying.”

drone pilots prefer manual

But it’s not just that drone pilots prefer manual flights over robots doing it for them. Other people don’t like to see robots doing jobs humans could do. A 2017 Pew Research survey found that 72 percent of Americans said they were at least somewhat worried of a world where machines perform many of the tasks traditionally done by humans.

There are a number of reasons why — it’s not all about robots taking jobs. For example, people have expressed frustration over robotic limitations (ie. Siri can tell you the weather, but she has a hard time pronouncing your friend’s name correctly when you ask Siri to call her). And sometimes robots do make mistakes, and those stand out. One self-driving car accident makes news, but the thousands of other human-caused car accidents are commonplace.

According to a PBS News Hour report, “There’s a certain irony in forgiving humans for mistakes but not robots, which are themselves programmed by humans.”

Durning your operations, do your drone pilots prefer manual flights, or do they like to sit back and let the drone do the work? Leave a comment below!

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