Ella Atkins, University of Michigan

Ella Atkins knows a thing or two about drones. As a professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan, she is emerging as a drone expert as the new field expands from the realm of hobbyists, into serious commercial consideration.

Expansion in the field and the increasing diversity of applications is being driven by innovation, but it isn’t necessarily innovation in flight itself, Atkins suggested in a podcast interview with the Financial Times.

“There’s nothing magic happening with propellers, the magic has happened as everything else has become smaller,” she said.

Atkins pointed to advances such as lightweight batteries providing greater power for longer, thus increasing range and flight time. Improved manufacturing techniques have also contributed to lighter craft while the advent of GPS has provided the ability to pinpoint where things are exactly.

Touching on regulatory issues around the world, Atkins was quick to acknowledge and sympathise with the difficulties of trying to apply civil aviation rules to the activity of drones.

“If a company wants to go out and conduct a business operation it is unlikely to violate laws and more likely to collect data customers are paying them for,” she said.

Well-publicised failures of hobby drones, particularly at sporting events, have cast them in a negative light thanks to sometimes reckless flyers. But Atkins believes that as international regulatory frameworks grow there will be greater guidance for hobbyists and professionals alike.

“[It will] be reasonable for civil aviation authorities to provide guidance to cities and municipalities too,” she said.