Commercial Drones Pose Confirmed Dangers?

Drone aircraft crashes and personal injury may no longer be speculation. In Australia, a triathlete was apparently struck by a drone aircraft after radio interference destabilized the drone. See, e.g., Australian triathlete injured after drone crash, BBCNews (Apr.7, 2014). Even military aircraft drones, hopefully with far more security than hobbyist drone aircraft, might be susceptible to radio or other interference. Hacked U.S. surveillance drone over Crimea shows new face of warfare, Homeland Security News (Apr. 11, 2014). Today, instructions are allegedly available to purportedly destabilize drone aircraft. Dennis Fisher, How to Skyjack Drones In an Hour for Less Than $400, ThreatPost (Dec. 3, 2013). UPDATE: A large, military-type drone operated by Texas police crashed for unknown reasons. Heather Alexander, $250K police drone crashes into Lake Conroe, Houston Chronicle (Apr. 28, 2014).

The point is: the concerns about drone aircraft are real—and these are just the radio issues. Privacy, trespassing, financial accountability, operator training, aircraft licensing, aircraft certification, operating parameters, etc. all remain unanswered.

Avoiding an Irresponsible Industry

Nevertheless, some drone aircraft advocates continue to press for unregulated commercial drone aircraft despite the unique dangers that these aircraft pose to persons and property. A Boeing-subsidiary vice president summarizes what appears to be an attitude among some in the drone aircraft industry:

“We don’t have the luxury of waiting another 20 years. This industry is exploding. It’s getting to the point where it may end up happening with or without the FAA’s blessing.” As quoted in U.S. lags behind other countries in commercial use of drones, Homeland Security News (Mar. 20, 2014).

But should communities and individuals pay for the mistakes and actions of these commercial aircraft operators?  No one likes regulations; but sometimes, if an industry fails to act to protect the community, the community may act to protect itself.

Drone Distortionism and Reductionism?

Frustratingly, some drone aircraft advocates try to over-simplify what are actually highly complex issues with serious negative consequences. The claims usually follow a pattern like this:

“You could go off to the hobby shop, buy a little remote control helicopter and fly it to your heart’s content. But if you hung a digital camera on that, took pictures of your neighbor’s roof and sold those pictures to him or her, now you are in business and you’re flying” an unmanned aircraft system.” Quoted in U.S. lags behind other countries in commercial use of drones, Homeland Security News (Mar. 20, 2014).

That is, the commercial drone aircraft advocates try to claim the good-will developed over 30 years by the radio control aircraft community—who largely have and do follow the reasonable rules and act responsibly.

But in answer to the commercial drone aircraft advocates, first, you cannot “go off to the hobby shop, buy a little remote control helicopter and fly it to your heart’s content.” Drone aircraft, despite claims by some drone advocates, are aircraft under both US statute and regulation. Such remote-controlled aircraft , operating outdoors, remain subject to FAA safety guidelines in place since 1981 (Advisory Circular 91-57)—this was confirmed even in the recent, much-talked-about, Pirker administrative court decision [see page 7, slip opinion]. Those long-standing model aircraft guidelines sensibly and minimally require that hobbyists operate any drone aircraft away from populated areas, away from noise sensitive areas, and away from other aircraft. Thus, claims that hobbyists can somehow “do what ever they want” undermine the hobbyist community and are simply untrue.

Second, distinctions between hobbyist and commercial actions are common in ur society and occur for example  in the radio community by distinguishing between amateur radio operators (ham radio) and commercial radio operators. Attaching a camera, taking photos of a neighbor’s property, operating in the hobbyist radio spectrum, and operating for a profit notably change the nature of the use from a hobbyist acting responsibly to commercial drone aircraft uses—it’s that simple. The facts belay the claims by drone advocates that “gee, we’re just hobbyists too.” But, small groups of hobbyists operating in a remote  field away from houses differs substantially from for-profit operators strapping on cameras to modified hobbyist equipment (intended for remote-area operation) and flying around busy neighborhoods to make a buck (and with little or no insurance or accountability for the drone aircraft).

Any responsible business or industry accepts accountability for its business operations. Flying a several pound device at high speeds in a residential area without some assurances that someone making a telephone call won’t cause the heavy device to crash into a playground injuring children doesn’t seem unreasonable—just as is the case with any other responsible business. What is at issue here is merely reasonable precautions and financial accountability for business operations.

Reasonable Standards Before Widespread Commercial Drone Usage

Should the drone aircraft industry be held to reasonable standards to assure reasonably safe operation of drone aircraft or should they just be given a free-pass to place communities and individuals at risk? What if you consider the industry’s own estimates of a $89 billion drone aircraft market with tens of thousands of drone aircraft operating? Gregory Gwyn-Williams, Jr., STUDY: Drone Market Will Total $89 Billion Over Next Decade; U.S. To Account For 62% By 2022, CNS News (Nov. 14, 2012).

Fixing the obvious issues and identifying other issues before widespread commercial use (often over populated areas) seems sensible both for the community and for the nascent drone aircraft businesses (and even for investors). Thus, while some in the so-called drone aircraft industry try to minimize the dangers and issues, complex dangers exist and need to be addressed before this industry “takes off.”

Update

In May 2014, the Defense Advance Research Project Agency (DARPA) announced a “hack-proof” drone technology called High Assurance Cyber Military Systems (HACMS). See Kris Osborn, DARPA unveils hack-proof drone, Fox News (May 22, 2014).