The morning is cool with fog slowly clearing. Terik and Grant from the flight test team drove us to Airware's testing site and set up the drone in the field.

We are out test flying our latest software release. Terik and Grant could have run solo, but I tagged along to see our hardware in action for the first time. I recently started as Airware’s second Product Designer. Today I’m curiously taking notes and photographs to understand our users’ experience more deeply.

The Flight Test

Today’s work is relatively routine. We have a photo survey feature that builds a high-resolution photographic map of an area. The feature has received a few updates, and we need to see how well they work.

Flight Testing

To start, Terik unboxes, assembles, and connects the Ground Control Station to the drone.

As a designer seeing something for the first time, I’m looking for ways to simplify the process and make it more intuitive. We are introducing various industries to autonomous flight. It’s up to me as a designer to make that a positive, effective, human interaction.

Grant loads the day’s photo survey flight plan into our Ground Control Station and makes several final adjustments. This process so far has been mostly manual. The autonomous part is about to begin.

Flight Testing

With the drone in the air I glance at Terik and Grant, seeing their hands off the controls. Terik does hold a backup RC controller, sitting attentive yet unconcerned. Grant sits back as he watches the drone’s flight path trace across the laptop screen. I watch with Grant as the drone enters into its pre-planned photo survey path. The camera’s shutter clicks off photos with steady tempo, and the propellers’ sound changes in pitch as the drone navigates its path.

We are introducing various industries to autonomous flight. It’s up to me as a designer to make that a positive, effective, human interaction.

Flight Testing

With about 80 photos taken, the drone climbs to the flight’s safe altitude and returns home. The guys download the photos and flight logs. After processing, we look through the photo survey’s results. We’ve successfully created an amazing, precise map image of the field. Test complete.

Autonomous Design Challenges

Design problems look a bit different when designing for autonomous systems. Part of our mission as product designers is to mold the technology to a form more easily understood and enjoyed by a human, a step in our so-called human-centered design process.

When technology is simple, our design decisions are easier. A can opener should have good affordances for where each hand should grip, and where you attach it to the can. For autonomous aircraft, our design decisions are not that simple.

Take the in-flight experience, for example. As the aircraft flies, it traces its path across the map on the laptop’s screen. It’s fun to watch, but I also wonder why do we watch it at all? Will passengers in a self-driving car have to monitor a screen showing its distance from cars around it? In an elevator, do you have to watch to make sure the elevator doesn’t overshoot its destination?

All of these autonomous technologies come with a wildly diverse set of challenges. For us here at Airware, autonomous design has three broad challenges:

  • Optimize the human’s role

Machines and humans both have their strengths. We need to let the human focus on what they are good at, like determining if a landing area is still clear of dangers, and let the drone focus on what it’s good at, like determining wind speed and adjusting flight plans accordingly.

  • Make flying robots intuitive

What analogous experiences do our users understand that we can draw from? How do you take drones from sci-fi technology to technology where no user manual is required?

  • Identify where autonomous technology can create new business opportunities

What happens when autonomous aircraft don’t need an operator at all? The number of uses then increases several magnitudes. For example, a skyscraper could have landing pad homes for drones to land, be stored, charge, and transfer data. Our design challenges would be very different then, such as around fleet management.

Looking Forward

This autonomous flight test reminded me of the Wright brothers’ first flight on their foggy morning in North Carolina. Together they used numerous engineering and design innovations to open the chapter on powered aviation. It must have been very exciting for the brothers and their team to know the problems they were solving had never before been explored, and that their solutions were shaping an entire industry.

Today at Airware, we feel the same way. Our engineers and designers are opening the chapter on commercial unmanned aviation. I’m excited and thankful to come to the office every day for these new challenges.

Thanks to Caity C, Eric J, and Mark B for reading drafts of this post.

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