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Business Usage of Drones in U.S. Airspace – How Safe Will It Be?

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By September 2015 we can expect to have drones in American air space, that is the date scheduled by Congress for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to have rules in place governing the civilian use of drones.

Drones have been around for years, but recently the U.S. military has been routinely deploying their stock of over 10,000 drones. We hear about the drones occasionally but we may not realize exactly how many are in the skies. A recent Washington Post investigative story offers a detailed analysis of military drones, what kinds are being used, where and how often these drones crash or fail to operate.

Since 2001 there have been a reported 400 military drones crashes. The most frequently crashed drone is the MQ-1Predator, an Air Force drone manufactured by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, of San Diego. According to purchasing and safety data obtained in the report almost half of those Predators have been involved in a major accident. “Since the drone program began, the Air Force has acquired 269 Predators. Forty percent have crashed in Class A accidents, the most severe category. An additional 8 percent wrecked in Class B accidents.”  (Wash. Post, 6/20/14)

The Army reports the loss of 55% of its MQ-5 Hunter drones, carrying weapons, in training and combat operations accidents.  The military classifies accidents by severity, determined by the damage inflicted to the aircraft or property. The Class A accident causes at least $2 million in damage. There have been 194 of those, for a minimum loss of $388 million. There have been 224 Class B crashes, which result in damages between $500,000 and $2 million per accident. These figures only cover the ‘overt’ flights; drones used in covert operations are not released to the public. Without doing the exact math it is safe to say that the military has lost over a billion dollars in equipment and destruction of property since deploying drones on a regular basis.  (Wash. Post, 6/20/14)

While half of the Class A accidents happened in the Middle East, one fourth of the drones crashed here in the United States. And that number is likely to increase as more and more people and businesses are buying and using drones—with or without government permission.

“A report released June 5 by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that there were “serious unanswered questions” about how to safely integrate civilian drones into the national airspace, calling it a “critical, crosscutting challenge.”   As seen in recent stories concerning Amazon.com taking to the skies via drones (or wanting to), businesses see huge potential profits if drone usage is perfected.  Some of the uses for drones in the business sector include tending crops, moving cargo or inspecting real estate. (Wash. Post, 6/20/14)  The potential uses are many.

Drones do not have many of the safety features of manned aircraft, however, and the pilot involvement is very different from sitting in an actual cockpit. Records show that many of the crashes involve pilot error.  One trained military pilot crashed a drone because she was unknowingly flying it upside down. The common factor in many malfunctions and crashes is due to the fact that drones require wireless links for navigation.  Satellites are employed to convey the pilot’s instructions to the drone. When there are atmospheric disturbances, a loss of power or wireless signal the drones are unable to be controlled. There are some safety features in place but many drones simply fly out of control or drop to the earth. That may be alright in a desert but when a drone falls on a school playground or a busy urban street we may feel differently.

Currently, drones are illegal in the United States, when used in business operations, though it is possible to get a waiver from the FAA. BP was just granted the right to conduct oil field surveys in Alaska via drones. Illegally, the American film industry is using drones to provide in-air camera shots, according to a recent story on NPR.

And just this week the National Park Service signed a policy memorandum prohibiting the use of unmanned aircraft on lands and waters under the National Park Service. This came after several reports of drones being spotted in parks, disturbing visitors and wildlife.

As the FAA works on establishing rules for navigation and operator standards and certification, as well as other regulations, it has authorized six public test sites. “These test sites will give us valuable information about how best to ensure the safe introduction of this advanced technology into our nation’s skies,” said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. Virginia Tech is one of the six with test site range locations in both Virginia and New Jersey

Is the use of drones an example of newly developed technology being used without the necessary safeguards, or sufficient research, to ensure public safety?  Time will tell.  There is definitely the potential for devastation to property and loss of life if drone usage is not properly regulated, and those regulations are not strictly enforced.  Military use differs significantly from civilian use, but we have to remember that even highly trained military pilots are experiencing a significant number of errors. One might argue that the military drones, which can be quite large – the Global Hawk weighs 15-tons – are much more dangerous than the smaller civilian models. But it only took a small bird to bring down an Airbus A320 twin-engine jetliner in 2009. There have already been reports of drones hitting military planes or losing parts that can crash into people, buildings or other property.

The Washington Post story aptly named “When Drones Fall From the Sky”, a chilling look at the reality we likely will be facing when drones take to our skies in 2015.   And, of course, this does not even address the privacy issues of drones, which is a story for another day. . .  .

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  1. Mike says:
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    Be sure to not include the small remotely controlled commercial “drones” that many have become accustomed to.

    No need to get Americans worried that armed drones are going to be patrolling the nations skies…they won’t.

    For a look at real world applications of small “drones” check our website http://www.cinedrones.net