Will 2015 be the year commercial drones take flight?

Will 2015 be the year commercial drones take flight?


This post first appeared on the author's own Engineering Ethics Blog.

If you had been in Boulder City, Nevada last December 19, you would have found Governor Brian Sandoval, a U. S. senator, U. S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officials, and representatives of a company that manufactures the Magpie, an unmanned aircraft, all gathered to watch the first official test flight at one of six new test facilities the FAA has established to explore how "unmanned aircraft systems" (UASs for short) can safely use the same airspace that is now occupied by manned aircraft.  A video of the test flight shows a man holding what looks like a large model plane.  At a signal, he heaves it into the air.  It flies about twenty feet and nose-dives into the gravel, bending its nose propeller and eliciting a groan from the crowd.

   Engineering Prof. Stephan

   Engineering Prof. Stephan

It wasn't exactly an auspicious start to a program that the FAA has undertaken to fast-track new regulations that will accommodate the increasing pressure on the agency to allow legal commercial use of UASs, commonly called drones, far beyond what present regulations permit.  But at least nobody was hurt, except maybe in the pride department.  As I noted in this space over a year ago, experimental drones can be deadly—a large one went amok in South Korea in 2013 and killed an engineer.  

What we are seeing in commercial drone development is a pattern that has played out repeatedly in one form or another whenever a potentially profitable technology outpaces the ability of a regulatory agency to adapt to it.  True to its generally good reputation among government agencies, the FAA is trying to catch up to the rapid advances in commercial drone technology.  But if history is any guide, we are in for some stirring times first. 

Something similar happened when advances in radio technology during World War I led to the explosion of radio broadcasting stations in the early 1920s. The creaky regulatory mechanism of the time stated that the Department of Commerce, which was charged with the task of regulating the new medium, could not deny licenses to any qualified applicant. As a result, the airwaves got so crowded that in some locations radios were practically unusable. Congress eventually acted, first by establishing the Federal Radio Commission in 1927, and then following it with the Federal Communications Commission in 1934, under whose ministrations we still operate today. 

                                     Credit: Kipper Williams, The Institution of Engineering & Technology

                                     Credit: Kipper Williams, The Institution of Engineering & Technology

Fortunately, the FAA is already up and running, so the situation is not as Wild-West-ish as it could be. The main issue facing the agency is not lack of regulatory authority—it has plenty of that—but the question of how to allow drones into the air in a way that both allows innovative commercial uses and preserves the exemplary safety record of U. S. air flights that has been achieved in recent years.  The experimental test sites the FAA has set up (besides Nevada, there are locations in Alaska, New York, North Dakota, Texas, and Virginia) can play a critical role in both uncovering unknown potential problems and in finding practical solutions to them.

Just as radio benefited from wartime technology advances, commercial drones benefit from the longer history and huge development effort that has gone into military drones. In addition, advances in high-density batteries, software, and navigational aids such as GPS systems make it technically possible for drones to travel long distances autonomously. However, the FAA is still uncomfortable with that.

The way things stand now, there are three classifications of drone regulations.  The only one that doesn't require the operator to obtain special permission is the hobby and recreational class, which has applied to operators of model aircraft for decades. If you are a researcher, drone developer, or someone who has other good reasons to do not-for-pay work with drones, you can apply for a "civil UAS" permit. Law enforcement agencies and other public organizations can obtain Certificates of Waiver or Authorization to conduct operations relating to their work. But before the likes of Jeff Bezos can start delivering Amazon orders via drone, the rules—and maybe the technology too—will have to change.  

I'm going to go out on a limb here, but the start of a new year is a good time for making predictions, and if the following pans out, you heard it here first. Let it be understood at the outset that I think the following would be a bad idea. But that doesn't mean that somebody won't try it. 

In 1982, a guy with more bravado than sense named Larry Walters tied a few dozen helium balloons to a lawn chair and floated over Long Beach until his balloons got tangled in a power line and he made it safely back to the ground. I don't know what the payload capability of current small quadcopter-like drones is, but at some point, somebody will have the idea of ganging a bunch of them together to lift the weight of a small person. This would be more of a stunt than a practical way of transporting people, but if the machines get cheap and powerful enough, it will happen.  

Of course, the FAA would disapprove of such a thing, and rightly so. But if we do start seeing small packages being delivered by drones, it will happen only if the FAA and industrial interests figure out how to have all that air traffic moving safely and keeping out of the way of buildings, power lines, and giraffes, for that matter. And if that infrastructure problem is solved, and battery technology advances to the point that you could safely build a helicopter-like backpack that was totally under software control, maybe we could see the day when people could literally fly to work. Unless it rains, of course.

The author is a professor at Texas State University's Ingram School of Engineering in San Marcos TX. He holds three separate degrees in engineering from the California Institute of Technology, Cornell University, and the University of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at: kdstephan@txstate.edu

Sources: The FAA's overall UAS website is https://www.faa.gov/uas/. Rules for hobby and recreational model-airplane flying are at http://www.faa.gov/uas/publications/model_aircraft_operators/. The report on the Nevada test flight of Magpie carried by Gizmodo is at http://gizmodo.com/first-drone-launches-at-faa-test-site-in-nevada-crashe-1673586255The six test locations are at http://gizmodo.com/federal-drone-testing-is-coming-to-these-6-scenic-locat-1491708151. Business Insider was the source of the commercial drone market estimate at http://www.businessinsider.com/the-market-for-commercial-drones-2014-2. My blog "Drones, Air Safety, and the FAA" appeared on Nov. 4, 2013.

Google+ Google+