Industry Rallies Behind Push To Promote Drone Safety

By Yasmin Tadjdeh
When a DJI Phantom drone crashed into the lawn of the White House in February, it highlighted what some fear may be a trend of unmanned aerial vehicle-related accidents.  
A number of these incidents have been blamed on reckless operators. In the White House crash, the pilot was intoxicated and lost control of the UAV.

It’s that type of “inappropriate” behavior that many in the aviation industry want to stop, and believe they can alleviate through educational initiatives.

Earlier this year, the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International spearheaded an effort along with the Academy of Model Aeronautics and the Small UAV Coalition to better inform unmanned aerial system operators of how to fly drones responsibly.

The “Know Before You Fly” campaign was launched in late November and has since been making strides in putting the word out about safe UAV operation, said AUVSI president and CEO Brian Wynne.

“It has been a very important initiative for the community because there are a lot of folks … that are flying UAS that are not aviation people,” Wynne said. “They need to be given a slightly better awareness of the fact that above them is airspace that may be restricted or might be prohibited and we want to make sure they are flying in the right place and they are flying responsibly.”

Better educating users will be critical to stymieing irresponsible flying. Often, Wynne said, users are unaware that they are doing anything wrong. That’s why the campaign reached out to various UAV manufacturers and convinced them to include specially prepared literature that lays out the do’s and don’ts of UAV safety in their packaging.

“They’re putting the materials that we’ve made available in their boxes now. So ultimately folks will read that information and educate themselves or not, but we want to make sure that the information is conveniently made available to them,” he said.

The number of high profile crashes throughout the United States indicates that users are not being properly educated, he noted.

While it is too soon to say if the campaign has directly mitigated any crashes, Wynne said it has received widespread support. “Literally the entire aviation community is getting behind this campaign and for very good reason,” he said.

While the associations and groups involved with the campaign genuinely want to see safe operations, they do have a vested interest, said Rich Hanson, director of government and regulatory affairs at the Academy of Model Aeronautics. A few rotten apples can make the whole community look bad, potentially souring efforts to streamline UAV integration in the national airspace, he noted.

“We certainly … have a self-interest issue here, too,” he said. If “there is public perception that these devices are hazardous and they’re causing problems within the community, we believe that reflects poorly on our established community that has been around for decades.”
Hanson noted that model aircraft pilots have operated “harmoniously” and transparently within the national airspace for decades because users have historically been aware of safety issues.

That has changed recently. New users can lack a proper understanding of safety measures because they approach the hobby differently than prior generations, Hanson said. Previously, when a person decided he or she wanted to fly model aircraft — which is how the FAA classifies small drones used recreationally — operators often went to a local hobby shop or an AMA club to learn the ropes, he noted. Through a peer and mentor process, they learned safe practices.

Now, users are buying the systems from big box stores or online and not receiving any formal education, he said. “We realized that we needed a different means of reaching out to this individual and getting the information to them.”

Distributing this information is critical to combating irresponsible flying, Hanson said.
“There is a fair amount of activity of inappropriate use and we believe largely that’s because people just don’t know any better. They haven’t been given the educational material so they know the safe practices,” he said. “Our belief is that by getting this educational material out there, the conscientious individual is going to try and follow it.”

The FAA — which is tasked with regulating commercial drones in the national airspace — is also part of the campaign.

In February, it released its much-awaited proposed small UAS rule. The document, which was years overdue, outlined safety measures that the agency anticipates small commercial drone operators will have to abide by when the technology is eventually integrated into the national airspace. Companies, industry and members of the public can submit comments on the proposal for 60 days. The FAA will then collect the information and review it.

The FAA will take at least 18 months to comb through the comments, Hanson said. After which, it may release a revised proposed rule or release the final rule.

Some provisions in the current proposal include that the UAS — which must weigh less than 55 pounds — remain within the operator’s line of sight during daylight hours. UAVs are also not to fly over any person “not directly involved in the operation.”

The FAA will require UAS pilots to pass a knowledge test as well as acquire an unmanned aircraft operator certificate with a UAS rating, the agency said.

Hanson noted that the regulations were less strict than many in the aviation community thought they would be. He was, however, concerned that while the FAA will require an educational examination to fly a UAS, it will not require a flight test.

“There is no requirement to demonstrate or to have your practical skills of flying the aircraft assessed. … The FAA’s rationale for that is that they believe the technology has advanced to the point that you really don’t need to learn to fly it, the device basically flies itself,” he said. That is a “short sided” notion, he added.

While the Academy of Model Aeronautics does not want to see the agency implement overly onerous practical skill assessments, it does believe that operators should prove that they could fly the drone, particularly when things go wrong such as losing a GPS connection, he said.

Congress tasked the agency in 2012 to integrate unmanned aerial vehicles into the national airspace by September 2015. Though commercial drones will certainly not be buzzing around the NAS come September, the agency has insisted it will meet its deadline because of the various milestones it has accomplished over the years, including releasing the proposed rules and standing up UAS test sites around the country for research.

Various studies have found once commercial operations are legalized, millions of dollars will be pumped into the economy and many different industries will adopt the technology.

Over the past several months, the FAA has slowly been granting regulatory exemptions for some commercial operators, which has pleased its critics.

In March, the agency announced that these exempted entities — which range from film studios to utility companies — will be able to receive a certificate of waiver or authorization for flights that meet certain criteria. Some exemptions state that flights must occur with aircraft under 55 pounds, be flown during the day, within the operator’s line of sight and flown under 200 feet.

While there has been progress, the FAA is still moving too slowly, said Paul Misener, vice president of Global Public Policy at Amazon Inc. Recently, the FAA granted Amazon Prime Air a regulatory exemption to test a drone. But the exemption came so late that the drone is now “obsolete,” he said during a March hearing of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

“We don’t test it anymore. We’ve moved on to more advanced designs that we already are testing abroad,” he said.

Amazon — which one day wants to deliver packages via drones — is testing its UAVs in countries such as the United Kingdom, where the rules are much less restrictive, he noted.

Even as the FAA works to mitigate safety concerns, privacy issues remain. Some members of the public have questioned whether UAVs could be used to peek into windows or backyards. One company, DroneShield, has said it can help alleviate some of those concerns.

The system works by listening for audible signs of a UAV, said DroneShield co-founder Brian Hearing. The noises made by drones are unique, and the system has a database of almost two dozen sound markers that include nearly all recreational drones that are on the domestic market.

When DroneShield senses that a UAV is near, it can send out a text message or email to a user to alert him or her. For larger companies or utilities, it can even trigger alarms that turn on video cameras to record the drone in action. Basic systems can sense about 150 feet out, while more advanced systems can detect signals up to 1,000 feet, he said.

The system is employed by celebrities and on movie sets such as the new adaptation of Star Wars.

Additionally, there is significant amount of interest internationally, especially for prisons, Hearing said. Criminals have in the past attempted to send contraband such as drugs over barbed-wire fences to inmates.

Despite the technology ferreting out passing UAVs, Hearing is clear that the company is not anti-drone, but rather hopes its technology will help allay the fears some members of the public have regarding the burgeoning technology.

“We aren’t anti-drone. We just think that … you should be able to know that there is a drone around you,” he said.

For more proactive customers, the company recently developed a net gun that will help bring a flying UAV down without damaging it. Because recreational UAVs are allowed to fly in the domestic airspace — which is public — it would be illegal for a citizen to, say shoot one down with a shotgun, Hearing noted. But with the Drone Net Gun, there is little to no damage done to the UAV, decreasing the likelihood of being sued by an operator.

The device resembles a flashlight and is not considered a firearm. It can throw a net out 50 to 100 feet, Hearing noted.

While properly educating users is important, there will always be pilots who break the rules, he said.

“I don’t care how much you educate people, there are always going to be the people who either don’t know or don’t care,” he said. “I don’t think education alone is going to solve the problem.”

Topics: Robotics

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