By Greg Webb, August 14, 2015
Imagine you are at an outdoor festival, enjoying the sites and music, when a drone buzzes into the crowd and injures you. Or that you find yourself on a city street being stalked by a drone that then crashes into your car. That happened to a woman recently. The reports are alarming and reflect only a small number of the incidents happening as the sales of unmanned aircraft, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s) known as drones, reach record numbers.
Recreational drones are creating havoc and causing major security concerns as amateur pilots pursue this hobby with little apparent regard for the people impacted. The reports of runaway and intrusive drones have increased over the last few years, and the incidents are picking up steam. According to Michael Huerta, the head of the Federal Aviation Administration, the FAA is particularly concerned about the increase in reports of drones flying dangerously close to airports. Recently, four airline crews reported a drone in a flight path at Newark International Airport.
Drone use has become popular so quickly that the FAA has not had time to craft appropriate safety rules for their usage. The Consumer Electronics Association estimates 700,000 new remote-controlled aircraft will be sold in the US in 2015, a 63 percent increase from 2014.
The dangers of drone use come into sharp focus when you consider this poster from the U.S. Forest Service. It was released by the U.S. Forest Service to educate drone users about the dangers of flying drones near wildfires. As California faces record wildfires this year, there have been recent incidents when the firefighters have had to stop flying firefighting aircraft to avoid colliding with a drone. Apparently the drone paparazzi, as the Washington Post called them, were circling around the fire trying to get video footage of the fire.
“Cars were torched on the freeways because drones made aerial firefighting efforts impossible,” state Sen. Ted Gaines (R-El Dorado), a sponsor of the measure, said in a statement. “This is maddening and I can’t believe that hobby drones are risking people’s lives to get videos on YouTube.” (WashingtonPost.com, 8/10/15)
California has just passed legislation to grant immunity to emergency responders who damage a drone interfering with their work. Regular citizens, who try to disable a drone, even if it is intruding on their property, may find themselves facing law enforcement while the person flying the drone suffers no penalties under the law.
Clearly, the FAA needs to take swifter action in setting strong guidelines for the use of recreational drones. Most commercial drone flights have been banned while the FAA finalizes its rules. But the average person who buys a drone at the local hobby shop is still flying his/her drone—with no instructions, no guidelines, no license and no training. The FAA can impose a fine if someone interferes with airspace or endangers individuals but that isn’t happening in a consistent manner. It is almost impossible to investigate all the sightings and pursue the offender. The FAA chief has promised to adopt “more stringent enforcement” measures in cooperation with state and local officials.” W Post
The question is one of responsibility—personal responsibility as well as the question of who should be educating drone owners about the dangers of flying drones? There’s little that can be done when someone decides to open his apartment window and launch a drone that ends up crashing on the South Lawn of the White House. Some believe that drone manufacturers are obligated to provide safety information and education to buyers. But as Brian Wynne, the president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International notes, there is only so much the industry can do to prevent reckless behavior.
A few of the major associations are partnering with the FAA to provide vital information about drones and safety factors. The Know Before You Fly organization has a website with important facts, guidelines and FAA rules—it’s a good start.
Hopefully, a recreational drone user does not bring down an airplane – ever. But, it is apparent that this hobby can be very, very dangerous, on a number of levels. How the laws and regulations develop over the coming years to create safe skies, and protect our privacy, will be both interesting and controversial. Stay tuned.