The cry to regulate small unmanned aerial vehicles has gotten much louder after a recreational pilot crashed his quadcopter on the south lawn of the White House on Jan 26. After the incident, President Obama commented in a CNN interview that drones have many positive uses, but that there is currently no regulatory structure in place to control these fights. Unfortunately, this statement is only half true. It is true that there are no regulations to guide commercial pilots. With the exception of fifteen companies that have been granted licenses, all commercial sUAV flights are prohibited in the U.S.
Contrary to popular belief, however, recreational operators are regulated. The following is a link to the Federal Aviation Administration’s website describing the dos and don’ts of recreational flying: http://www.faa.gov/uas/publications/model_aircraft_operators/. These regulations clearly state that model airplane pilots cannot fly past the line of sight of the operator, and that all flights should follow community-based safety guidelines. Flying a drone at 3:00 AM in a restricted area during a winter storm after a drinking bout, as in the White House incident, clearly violates these regulations, and since the FAA can’t regulate against poor judgment, it’s doubtful that new or additional regulations would have prevented this incident. Regardless, the incident has added to the negative image of the entire sUAV industry, and has reinforced the “go slow” position that the FAA has taken with respect to issuing commercial licenses, adding to the ongoing frustration shared by many sUAV users.
Flying commercial sUAVs to collect GIS data is a disruptive technology whose tremendous potential won’t be reached until regulations are in place that allow for expanded commercial use, but with technology progressing rapidly, the FAA is struggling to formulate rules for a moving target. If the industry is to move forward, some argue that manufacturers must take the lead on improving safety.
Solutions fall into the following categories — detection, containment, and prevention. DroneShield in the Washington, D.C. area, Sentien Robotics in Fredericksburg, Va. and DeDronen in Lohfelden, Germany are developing technologies to identify the presence of flying drones. Their work seems promising, but for now it’s directed more toward maintaining privacy than addressing safety.
Much attention has been given to the possibility of a rogue drone violating airspace and colliding with a commercial jetliner, but chances are much greater that an sUAV will crash into a moving automobile because there are simply more cars on the road than planes in the sky. Until the technology of object recognition becomes operational, the only way to reduce the chance of this type of accident is to limit the area in which a drone can fly. Manufacturers have the technology to do this now.
Creating a common no fly database is another solution that will reduce the chance of drone crashes around restricted facilities. DJI, the market sales leader and maker of the drone that landed on the White House lawn, has taken the lead in this endeavor. Their flight controller contains a reference list of U.S. airports and prohibits flights of DJI aircraft around or near these areas. They are also implementing a 15.5 mile no fly radius around downtown Washington, D.C. and they will prohibit flights across the U.S. border to and from Canada and Mexico.
The DJI database controller is a good start, but some argue that more needs to be done. Military bases, national parks, stadiums, water treatment plants, power stations, courthouses, state and federal buildings, prisons, post offices and hospitals are just a few of the facilities that need to be added to the no fly list. The database should be dynamic, so that individuals, companies and organizations could geocode their unique no fly locations to the map. However, this is a massive plan that cannot succeed unless all manufacturers add the data to their controllers, and the project is funded.
As a proof of concept the IE prototype no fly map displays regional data around the state of Texas. Once the map opens, which may take several minutes, you can zoom in and out and render point, cluster and heat maps.
In summary, there seems to be a misconception that once commercial regulations are in place, the drone accident problem will go away. At TexMobile, we believe it will not go away. It won’t go away because recreational pilots either don’t know the regulations or willfully disregard them. As a result, it falls to the manufacturers of sUAVs to take the initiative and build in safe guards to prevent accidents caused not by commercial pilots, but by novice model airplane pilots. Dynamic geocoded mapping systems have the potential to play a significant role in addressing these issues.