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Sunday, November 1, 2015

Editor's Notebook: The Worst That Could Happen?

By James T. McKenna

In January, there was a noteworthy small drone crash in Washington. I’m not talking about the 3-lb DJI Phantom that flew into the White House lawn Jan. 26. That one garnered plenty of TV time and got the President talking about unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).

No, this one occurred Jan. 21 with little attention. But it was telling.

This crash occurred in a Capitol Hill hearing room. The chairman of the House of Representatives’ Committee on Science, Space and Technology, Republican Lamar Smith of Texas, had brought in experts from NASA, the FAA, the National Research Council, MIT and the Assn. of Unmanned Vehicle Systems Inc. (AUVSI) to testify on UAS R&D. But he seemed most excited about the testimony of a representative of the Small UAV Coalition, Colin Guinn, who had brought a drone. It seemed this would be the first time one was flown in a congressional hearing room, and the chairman appeared tickled.

But most committee members were called away early from the hearing and missed the flight of the Parrot Bebop. When they returned after formal testimony was done, Smith asked Guinn to have the drone fly again for them.

The chief revenue officer of 3D Robotics, Guinn is a darling of the drone world. Young, telegenic and engaging, he hosted this year’s AUVSI’s annual, three-day trade show. He was happy to oblige the chairman, who instructed him to show off the drone’s prowess. Smith felt the first flight had been tame. “I was hoping you’d fly it over the whole room,” Smith said. Guinn replied, “You said no haircuts!”

After some prep, the drone lifted off. Six seconds later, it plopped to the ground. “That’s your worst case scenario,” Guinn said, adding mockingly, “Oh my god, drone crash! Drone crash!”

It was striking how much Guinn missed the point. I believe his off-the-cuff comments illustrate the gap between the attitudes of a highly visible drone community members and “mainstream” aviation toward flight safety.

The worst case is not a small drone dropping harmlessly 5 ft to the floor. It would have been far worse had that Bebop dropped 5 ft onto Lamar Smith’s head (something I suspect FAA folks pointed out to Smith’s staff). Worse would be a drone falling on fans at a sporting event, or on a toddler on the street—risks highlighted by recent events. More to the point, worse would be a drone, even one less than a pound like the Bebop, flying into an air ambulance, law enforcement or electronic newsgathering helicopter.

I’ll grant that many, if not most, people who operate small drones do so responsibly. Certainly, most people in aviation fly responsibly; we have contributed to a system safe almost beyond description. That system has some main tenets: that the people in it know the safety rules, that they generally comply with those rules and that they know that if they break the rules someone will come after them.

Enough people who fly small drones in the U.S. don’t understand these tenets. Collectively, they constitute an unrestrained threat to aviation, and particularly to helicopters.

This troubles the Academy of Model Aeronautics. Its guidelines for flying radio-controlled aircraft form the basis for the FAA allowing small drones to fly (unless they are commercial ones covered by an FAA exemption or have a restricted type certificate). When the U.S. Transportation Dept. last month said it plans to require federal registration of small drones by December, that academy worried publicly that this would restrain hobby flying in ways unwarranted by the risks they pose–a reasonable concern.

But the hobby aviator is not the problem. This person appreciates aviation and its rigors, and may be a pilot, mechanic, controller or dispatcher. This person understands airspace and airport boundaries and procedures and respects them. A hobbyist that goes from an R/C Cessna 152 to a Bebop or Phantom.

The person who goes from an iPad or a remote-controlled dune buggy to a small drone is another matter. This person may be blissfully ignorant the hazards of flying and how utterly alone and self-dependent a pilot aloft and–I’ll venture to guess–doesn’t consider either condition his or her concern. Put another way, this person does not know there is no pause button in an aircraft and does not care.

The FAA has done an admirable job of managing the small-drone threat, mainly by fencing such aircraft off from other fliers. A registry is a good next step, offering means of educating drone operators on their obligations in the air and tracking down transgressors, thus starting the process of making them responsible members of the aviation community. It may be that small drones lack the mass and energy to kill a helicopter’s occupants, but there is no value in testing that worst case in the sky.

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