Hardware / Legal Issues / Government

Will Government Enforcement Get Ahead of the Proliferation of Drones?

June 23, 2014

Alfred Gates is a big believer in the potential of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), also commonly referred to as drones. The future is bright. It’s the present that is worrisome.

“If you’re not an expert as an operator, that’s pretty dangerous,” said Gates, a professor at Central Connecticut State University. “The risk is people who have no understanding of FAA regulations or space requirements. You can’t see these things (UAS) from a helicopter. They have no navigation lights or beacons. Birds are easier to see from a plane. In a suburban environment, this is dangerous.”

Gates is an expert. In addition to teaching engineering at CCSU, Gates is a licensed helicopter pilot, a flight instructor, a remote-controlled aircraft hobbyist and UAS builder. He recently gave a lecture outlining his concerns for public safety and how he hopes that government will offer protection moving forward.

There are myriads of business applications for UAS beyond the futuristic drone-delivered package system outlined by Amazon executives. UAS can be used by surveyors when coupled with a scanner. Engineers and other professionals have use for UAS as well. Farmers, rescue workers, environmental engineers, pilots could all use UAS to their benefit.

“This is a rapidly evolving technology,” Michael Huerta, Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, told the ESPN program “Outside The Lines.” “It’s a technology that has a lot of great potential. It’s one that we’re very excited about. What we’re trying to do is establish frameworks under which it’s safe to operate. We have to be concerned about not only how the technology operates, how the operator is certified, but does it pose a hazard to people on the ground, does it pose a hazard to other aircraft. Those are the sorts of tradeoffs and choices that we need to make.”

The rules of flying UAS, however, might have gotten a little grayer with the recent ruling by the National Transportation Safety Board in Pirker v. Huerta that disallowed a $10,000 fine levied by the FAA against an operator who used a UAS for business at the University of Virginia.

“Obviously we’re appealing the ruling,” said Huerta. “For us, we do believe that Congress has made clear that the FAA has the exclusive authority to regulate our national airspace. And for one reason: We want to ensure it’s safe, not just for unmanned aircraft system operators, but for all the other air space users and people on the ground.”

There are several concerns about UAS operation that Gates believes need to be immediately addressed. One problem is enforcement. Catching people who are flying UAS improperly is often done when a video is posted online. Other than that, it’s almost impossible to for the FAA to find people in the field breaking regulations.

Another problem is the proliferation of UAS use and the sharing of software and directions online. Primarily, these are good things. But the secondary effect is to create more hobbyists in the field that don’t necessarily have the training to use UAS.

“Hobbyists have sites to communicate open source software to fly drones probably more advanced than most companies use,” said Gates. “The software can fly these autonomously. Once someone can do that, they have a piece of aerospace engineering. The problem is a guy who’s flying a $2,000 drone doesn’t want to scrap it in the event it goes out of control around the public. He’ll try to save it. A lot of things can happen. You can lose your GPS signal and it could fly somewhere else. The experienced hobbyist knows this stuff. They’re not the problem. The problem is the average Joe who’s flying something he doesn’t know much about.”

In addition to the airborne UAS itself being a potential hazard, the parts of the UAS can be dangerous. UAS parts that fail can cause uncontrolled flight potentially injuring people and cause property damage  and when flown in non-remote areas, the threat increases.

“Aircraft standards is a problem,” said Gates. “They have to be air worthy. This must be done to protect people in populated areas.”

But how can the FAA expand its oversight of UAS with its current staffing?

“The FAA needs to expand,” said Gates. “This is a whole new era of autonomous flight. There needs to be a licensing procedure for commercial operations in populated areas similar to a private pilot. We’re at the tip of the iceberg here. The impact is going to happen a lot faster than with personal computers in the 1980s because of the Internet and people sharing information online.”

Gates emphasizes that UAS are good things that will impact our lives positively. In fact, it’s because of the positive applications of UAS that they will become common quickly.

“This can really impact society positively,” said Gates. “Surveyors can program a drone to fly the property boundary. Drones can outperform pilots in turns and are better in very bad weather. Drones can fly a grid-like pattern better than any pilot and thus would be great in search missions. They can be used for delivering things to remote areas. They can take 1,000 water samples in a day. The environmental footprint is much less with a drone compared to manned aircraft.”

Bruce MacLeod is editor of POB. He can be reached at macleodb@bnpmedia.com.

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