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Game of drones

As more recreational and commercial drones take flight, who is looking out for safety?

Created date

February 23rd, 2015
drone
drone

Look up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane. In 2015, odds are that flying object isn’t Superman. It’s a drone, or as it’s properly called, an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). While these small flying wonders hold tremendous promise for business, industry, and fun-seekers, they could also hold tremendous peril should they go awry in midair or fall into the wrong hands.

From national defense to commercial applications to backyard fun, it’s easy to see why UAV technology is one of the most exciting new developments of the twenty-first century. Fleets of UAVs can replace old-school crop dusters over farmers’ fields. Companies like Amazon.com are eager to use UAVs to make deliveries. Filmmakers can employ UAVs to create real-time visuals that once needed to be computer-generated. By the year 2030, the FAA estimates there will be 30,000 commercial UAVs in the U.S. 

Commercial applications

While the future of UAVs is full of possibilities, it’s not entirely bright. They have been used to illegally spy on people. Most notably, paparazzi used UAVs to follow pop stars Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez. A recreational UAV carrying illegal drugs crashed near the U.S./Mexican boarder. And this past January, an errant three-pound recreational UAV landed on the White House lawn. On top of that, the FAA reported 25 close calls between small UAVs and airplanes in the second half of 2014. 

Congress and the UAV industry have called on the FAA to devise regulations governing UAV flight, particularly with regard to commercial operators. The agency was expected to present its proposals in 2014 but has yet to release them. The delay has effectively grounded burgeoning commercial operations of UAVs. 

At a hearing on the status of UAVs, Chairman of the Congressional Committee on Science, Space, and Technology Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) noted that many U.S. companies, frustrated by the FAA’s stalling, have moved their UAV research and development (R&D) overseas. “Continued delays in integrating drones in the National Airspace System could cost the U.S. more than $10 billion per year, or $27.6 million per day, in potential earnings from investment in drone R&D,” said Smith.

Public opinion

How does the public feel about the proliferation of UAVs? The Chubb Group recently conducted a poll to gage people’s views. Close to three-fourths (73%) of survey respondents are concerned that UAVs could damage property by crashing into a house. Fifty-five percent said UAVs could injure people by poking out an eye or cutting a finger. 

Seventy-eight percent believe UAVs could turn America into a surveillance state. Other privacy fears include UAVs becoming the new Peeping Toms, capturing photos of family members (60%), and hacking into wireless networks (50%). In addition, 34% are concerned that drones could steal their possessions.

Hobbyists

For flight enthusiasts, recreational UAVs are just plain fun. Operated via remote control—in some cases with a smartphone app—many of these toy quad-copters have built-in cameras to take aerial photos. They are also relatively inexpensive—under $100 from retailers like Radio Shack or Best Buy.  

While commercial UAV operators are presently grounded, hobbyists are expected to follow guidelines of responsible UAV operation but not required to demonstrate an understanding of those guidelines to any official licensing body. As long as they fly their UAVs under 400 feet in altitude, at least five miles from an airport, keep the vehicle within sight and away from highly populated areas, they are complying with the current regulation.

The question is, how many new UAV operators know what is expected of them? “Often, people who purchase UAS (unmanned aerial systems) for recreational use in stores or online are unaware of the existing safety guidelines,” says Michael Drobac of the Small UAV Coalition. 

To spread awareness, the Small UAV Coalition has launched “Know Before You Fly” (knowbeforeyoufly.org) to help new operators understand UAV safety. “Our hope is that this campaign will make that information more accessible to the legions of flyers taking to the skies, ensuring safety for all aircraft, both manned and unmanned,” says Drobac. 

Good stuff

Once the FAA releases its proposals, it will most likely take a few years before they are refined and put into effect. For hobbyists, there is the hope that whatever comes won’t impede the joy they get from flying UAVs. 

“I see unmanned aerial vehicles being an important part of our future,” says Jay Vincent of Grassroots UAVs, an organization of enthusiasts. “These small UAVs are going to power a revolution. We’re looking to ensure that the under 55 [pound] small UAV community isn’t harmed by onerous regulations. There are hobbyists who live by rules that the American model aircraft association has used for years.”

“The ability of a grandparent to use a small little quadroter that they might get from Best Buy or Micro Center to bond over with their young grandchild is one of those moments that is absolutely indelible,” says Vincent. “And we want to keep it that way. They can teach physics lessons to their grandchildren. They can teach responsible use of machinery to their grandchildren. There’s a lot of good stuff wrapped up in that.”

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