Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Safety concerns keeping commercial drone operators from going about their business

The future has arrived in a stirring debate of controversy. Drones offer a cheaper, easier and more productive way to conduct many businesses—from agriculture to journalism to the film industry to fighting fires to dozens of other areas. (Air Dog photo)

But safety concerns have put the future of commercial drone use in the hands of the Federal Aviation Administration, which has a Sept. 30, 2015 deadline to set rules for commercial use. The National Transportation Safety Board ruled last month that drones are aircraft and are subject to existing aviation laws. Until FAA rules are put in place, most commercial use of drones remains illegal.

"If the rules are reasonable, more than 70,000 jobs could be created within three years, says Mario Mairena, head of government relations for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, reports The Economist. The organization believes that "commercial benefits from drones for the American economy are worth more than $10 billion a year."

The problem is that many commercial operators have grown impatient waiting for official rules and have flown drones whenever and wherever they liked, which has led to crashes and several near misses, Gregory A. Hall reports for The Courier Journal in Louisville. 

FAA "released statistics to several media outlets in recent weeks in response to public records requests that showed a report of pilots seeing drones roughly daily during an almost-six-month period beginning June 1," Hall writes. "Using that data, The Washington Post calculated 25 near misses."

University of Louisville assistant professor Adrian Lauf told Hall that near-collisions are "definitely on the increase and there are a lot of people that now have access to these aircraft. Not as many of them are smart about it, and they don't realize the consequences. And that's perhaps one of the reasons why the FAA's probably going to require a pilot's license. . . . they have no other way of verifying that a UAV pilot has the knowledge of how airspace has to be handled."

One solution is to create more collision-avoidance technology, reports The Economist. "Passenger aircraft carry transponders that relay their position to ground radar. But an aircraft-type transponder would be too heavy for many small drones to carry, and with plastic or styrofoam airframes, they might not be detected with radar."

GPS-based devices that are part of a system called Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast could be the answer, reports The Economist. "These devices repeatedly broadcast not just the aircraft’s position but other data, including its flight path. They also receive similar co-ordinates from any nearby aircraft. ADS-B is part of a new generation of air-traffic management being installed in America, Europe and elsewhere."

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