It’s the time of year when predictions flood the media, but rather than offering my usual smorgasbord of possibilities, I’m going to stick with just one that I know will come true. 2015 ended on a huge upswing for drones – UAVs, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles – in various shapes and sizes, with a Christmas surge whose dimensions are still being reckoned, though estimates I’ve seen run from half a million up to more than a million sold. Drones are the story for 2016.
If you’re wondering how all this is being regulated, you’re in good company. Back in my flying days, I used to work with students learning how to do instrument approaches to various airports when the weather was bad. The student wore a view-blocking hood so that just the instruments were visible, while I kept my eyes on the sky for any traffic. It’s hard for me to get used to the idea that among the things I’d have to worry about today are drones near active runways.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration, more than 650 sightings of drones from aircraft occurred from January to August of 2015 (up from 238 for all of 2014), while 138 pilots reported drones at altitudes up to 10,000 feet during the month of June alone. Because drones can be flown by private operators – hobbyists – we have been dealing with an explosion of technology that the regulatory structure hasn’t resolved.
That government should lag behind tech isn’t surprising given the pace of digital change. But those of you who found drones under your trees this year are now subject to at least a partial response from the Department of Transportation, which requires you to register the craft or face penalties from the Federal Aviation Administration. The only exception is for truly lightweight drones weighing in at less than half a pound. Go to www.faa.gov/uas/registration/ for further information before you even think about lifting off.
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Also required: The registration number, to be placed somewhere on the drone. This is useful if, for example, a drone crashes, allowing the owner/operator to be quickly located. I can’t say it would be of much use to those in the cockpit when a drone whizzes by on final approach. Even if no collision occurs, a sudden drone near-miss could be a cockpit distraction at a critical time.
What is increasingly obvious is that now that drones are the fad du jour, we’re going to need to learn how and where to regulate them to both maximize their potential and make sure they’re used safely. The potential is indeed huge. Scientists are using drones in Alaska to monitor beluga whales, while Spanish conservationists are tracking an endangered species of lynx with drones. Hosts of uses in search and rescue come to mind as well, along with obvious possibilities in mapping that take us well into commercial territory in real estate and farming.
And then there are Amazon’s well publicized plans to deliver packages to our homes with next-generation drone tech. Once we’ve moved into the commercial sphere, we find an FAA that is working on rules that would shape business use. These rules may take years to finalize, but companies needing to use drones in the meantime can apply for an exemption, which means that more than 2,500 U.S. businesses can now petition to use drones as the market develops.
So what do we do by way of safety as drones begin to outnumber airplanes? NASA is at work on a drone air-traffic system that involves automated diversion from other aircraft, while companies like Raleigh-based PrecisionHawk are developing tracking and avoidance systems that draw from our cellular networks to provide safe onboard flight operations. Ultimately, drones will have to have the intelligence of our smartphones and will doubtless prove just as hackable.
The prediction for 2016? A suddenly awakened regulatory structure turning sharply toward non-commercial drones as incidents of privacy abuse and aerial near-misses force the issue. And a growing discontent among commercial operators like Amazon who want to push innovation and need clarity as to what the eventual rules are going to be.
Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.