Although it was unknown to many, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) played a major combative role in California’s Happy Camp Complex Wildfire in October 2014. The UAVs provided video visualizations of fire lines and mountains through smoke-obscured skies, mapped retardant drops and tracked firefighting vehicles as well as the advancement of the fire itself. “The only growing pain with remote controlling the airborne infrared was that so many people wanted to use it,” said Henri Wolf, chief technology officer (and former wildfire tanker pilot) of SkyIMD, which provides aerial imaging solutions.
Indeed, balancing the productive use of UAVs against their potential to disrupt air patterns and cause accidents is already a problem as we await further word on UAV regulations.
As a case in point, a drone almost collided with a helicopter at 1,000 feet of altitude near Newcastle, Australia in 2014, prompting an investigation. A second 2014 Australia case involved a tourist who was filming himself flying over the tallest building on Australia’s Gold Coast with a $1,000 drone. The problem was, the drone was not only filming the tourist! It also filmed the beach and the sunbathers on it, who expected at least a modicum of aerial privacy.
In Australia as in the U.S., it is almost wholly recreational flyers who are allowed to operate UAVs—and the current limit on flying altitude is 400 feet. The fear is that these UAV users are not necessarily being certified or monitored, and that the lack of supervision invites disaster. In Australia alone, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority estimates that tens of thousands of drones are being flown by recreational users, with skills ranging from amateur to expert; yet, only around 170 UAV operator certificates have been issued nationally. These certificates require individuals to have a radio license and to pass an exam.
Australian Certified UAV Operators president Joe Urli is calling for increased enforcement against illegal drone use so major air accidents will be avoided. Urli pointed to an incident in the U.S. where a UAV came within 200 meters of a Boeing jetliner as it was preparing to land. “It’s not a question of if it [a crash] will happen, it’s a question of when it will happen,” he said.
The airways are littered with such occurrences.
In March 2013, an unmanned drone came within 200 feet of a commercial jet over New York, triggering an FBI appeal to the public for any information about the unusual and potentially dangerous incident.
In March 2014, an unmanned aircraft almost struck a US Airways flight near Tallahassee, Florida. The aircraft was about five miles from the airport, and was at an altitude of 2,300 feet when it passed by what appeared to be a remote-controlled aircraft.
Since June 2014, commercial airlines, private pilots and air traffic controllers have reported at least 25 incidents to the FAA where small drones came within a few seconds or feet of crashing into a much larger aircraft. Many of the close calls occurred during takeoffs and landings at the nation’s busiest airports.
The takeaways from these potentially disastrous circumstances are that cameras and sensors on UAVs can’t replace the sensory perceptions of a real pilot in an aircraft, nor the radar and anti-collision systems that aircraft are equipped with. Flying a UAV also requires more than a hobbyist’s unbridled enthusiasm if pilot error is to be minimized. Along with this, there are also quality issues with many popular UAV drone models, which were rushed to market without the requisite backup safety features. Finally, the wireless communications that drones and their operators depend upon is not guaranteed to remain uninterrupted.
All of this suggests that while entrepreneurs might roil against them, UAVs need regulatory guidelines that likely involve formal licensing and certifications for even amateur operators, as well as policing in the sky to ensure that UAVs are flying within the legal altitudinal limits. On the quality front, higher safety standards should also be required for UAV manufacturers, which have been given some leeway to rush their products into war or other critical situations. Finally, the telecom industry’s support of these devices, which are remotely flown and depend upon uninterrupted wireless services, needs to be looked at.
In September 2014, the FAA allowed six Hollywood movie and television show makers to use UAVs for the purpose of shooting productions. The FAA required filmmakers to fly their UAVs only on closed sets, by certified pilots, and up to maximum height of 400 feet.
The more that specific use cases like this one can be identified and regulated—the greater the chance that UAVs will be safely and responsibly operated--because no one wants major accident or mishap to place a damper on UAV operation when there is so much potential for good.