The High Price for Free Flight

Eric Lyttle brings up a lot of great discussion points in his article, “Rise in amateurs' use of drones raises risk to other aircraft.” As the consumer market for drones grows and grows, so do the risks involved with having such lax enforcement of laws in place. The article references Lt. Greg Estep, Columbus police heliport overseer. He expresses concerns about people flying drones at events with heavy air traffic, and often times at night, such as Columbus, Ohio's annual Independence Day festival, “Red, White, and Boom.”

As an industry standard, almost all drones come with lights on the bottom so that the pilot can tell which direction it is facing. Yet, even with those precautions in place, for someone manning a helicopter or a plane, a black drone flying at night might not be seen until an easily preventable tragedy becomes unavoidable.

“You get a drone sucked into a tail rotor flying over 300,000 people. It could have been a disaster.” He goes on to add, “the amazing thing is, there's no way of finding out who was flying the drone... and the [Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)] regulations have no teeth for a hobbyist.”

These regulations Estep refers to are the standards that the FAA has placed for consumers when flying an unmanned aircraft.

  • No flying within 5 miles of an airport.
  • Aircraft must remain within sight of pilot at all time.
  • No flying above 400ft.
  • Fly safely (avoiding areas with large pedestrian traffic, buildings, etc.).

Lyttle follows up Estep's statement by easing some of the concerns that readers may have, stating facts like, “airspace up to 3,000 feet above any stadium of 30,000 capacity or larger during a pro or college sporting event is considered 'national-defense airspace,'” and that, “there also are Ohio laws against... flying an aircraft while intoxicated, or voyeurism if a drone user is shooting video with a drone outside a neighbor's bedroom window.”

Drones are doing wonders for streamlining the workflow of a multitude of industries, but still have a lot of potential for malevolence. The FAA seems to be in a bit of a bind on whether the future of flight lies in harder regulation of consumer airspace or maintaining basic boundaries.

This discussion of how to properly govern the sky is not one that is specific to the United States either. Many of the arguments being made, such as concern of mid-air collisions between manned and unmanned aircrafts, are happening on a global level. More than 670 permissions for commercial drone operations in the UK alone were granted by the Civil Aviation Authority in 2014.

Madhumita Murgia published an article for the British newspaper, The Telegraph, in which she talks about the collaboration between NASA and the UK to create a drone traffic system. The system would, “track and trace all drones, especially those flying below 500 feet, irrespective of whether they were flown by commercial or leisure pilots.”

She goes on to talk about a recent Forrester report that envisioned what will happen if regulations fail to grow at the same rate as drone use:

“Imagine thousands of drones operated by hundreds of businesses delivering products or capturing data in dense urban areas like New York City, Chicago or San Francisco... Without a common set of technology protocols and rules of the air, chaos could reign.”

The drone traffic system would be doing what today's market is not: adding accountability to those manning these aircrafts. Currently, if someone crashes their drone into a plane or a building, the only thing holding them accountable is their own conscience. This traffic system may be the missing link to, as Estep put it, add some teeth to the FAA's regulations.

With more and more drones entering the sky everyday, to avoid a future like the one laid out by Forrester, something needs to be put into place.

As the first official chapter of the Unmanned Autonomous Vehicle Systems Association, with Murphy Company's CEO, Loren Stone, as president, Murphy Company will help lead the dialog and guide initiatives to maintain freedom for flying while simultaneously committing to put the safety of the public first and foremost.

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