Drones to enter public skies in 2015: Will it be safe?

Nothing stresses out drone enthusiasts more than reading in the news that some hobbyist decided to pilot a homemade, remote-controlled helicopter drone over Alcatraz or, as in a reported case in March, test out a three-foot-wide drone near a jetliner landing at John F. Kennedy airport.

“People like that make our lives more difficult,” said Brandon Stark, a drone researcher at the University of California, Merced.

These flights are illegal—people must keep drones within their line of sight, under 400 feet and away from airports. But that hasn’t stopped a few rogue hobbyists from breaking the rules, plus some specific ones, such as the prohibition against flying lower than 2,000 feet above Alcatraz. It was these kinds of incidents that led the Federal Aviation Administration to greatly restrict small drone flights in the first place in 2007 and begin the process of coming up with still-uncompleted universal safety standards for unmanned aircraft that could be as stringent as those for commercial airliners.

“There were people doing really stupid stuff,” said Ted Wierzbanowski, a retired Air Force colonel and the chair of a committee tasked by the FAA to recommend safety regulations for small drones that weigh less 55 pounds. “The FAA saw all of this happening and how unsafe it was starting to become, and they had to shut it down.”

Small drones—or unmanned aerial systems, as their fans prefer to call them—have been tightly regulated by the FAA since 2007. Businesses cannot use a drone in any commercial endeavor, and researchers and public agencies must go through a rigorous application process to use unmanned aircraft for nonprofit reasons. Meanwhile, European countries have had laxer rules, leaving the U.S. drone industry to lament that it is losing out internationally.

This is all expected to change in late 2015, the deadline Congress gave the FAA to begin the “safe integration of civil unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system.” The agency will dip a toe into these waters sometime before then by opening up six test sites around the country where drones will fly alongside manned aircraft. (The test sites were supposed to be announced last year, but scientists and drone businessmen in 24 states are still waiting to hear if they will be chosen.)

The delay in FAA approval has made people wary of another drone incident. “If we have one accident, that’s going to kill the industry or slow it down even more than it’s being slowed down by the privacy thing,” Wierzbanowski said during a speech to drone researchers at an international conference in Atlanta on Thursday. (He was referring to criticisms that the use of drones for domestic surveillance could invade citizens’ privacy.)

In the meantime, scientists are working to develop systems that make drones safer and even in some cases override their human operators.

“Everybody has pretty much accepted that this is happening, and now [the question is], how do we make this happen safely?” said Wierzbanowski.

Scientists and regulators are encountering two main questions in developing the safety regulations: How to design drones so that they avoid running into manned aircraft, and how to make sure drones that lose contact with their ground control do not hurt people.

Wierzbanowski’s committee recommended that the operators of small, low-flying drones should be in charge of avoiding manned aircraft, instead of the other way around. In this fairly low-tech scenario, one person would be in charge of scanning the area for other aircraft and then telling the operator on the ground if he or she sees anything. The operator would then flip a switch that would force the drone to dive like a bird and get out of the way of the larger manned plane.

With larger drones that are flying out of the line of sight of the people who are controlling them from the ground, something more high-tech is needed. Air traffic controllers would track these drones just like manned aircraft, making sure their flight paths do not intersect with any other craft. But as a backup scenario, researchers are also working on “sense and avoid” systems on larger drones so that the machines can avoid other aircraft on their own. Many of these systems provide live video back to the pilot on the ground, who scans the image for any sign of trouble, but some are more sophisticated and autonomous.

Drones can also take the heart rate and other physiological data from their on-the-ground operators to gauge their stress levels. The system could be trained to take over from the human operator if it decides his or her stress levels are too high or that the operator is making irrational decisions.

Drones also need a safe way to deal with the possibility that the frequency it uses to communicate to its ground control could be interfered with, either intentionally (by hackers) or unintentionally (by an overloaded network). The FAA could require all drones to be programmed to automatically fly back to where they launched from if the signal is cut, to dive to the ground wherever they are when they lose the signal, or to fly around in a holding pattern until the signal is restored.

None of these safety regulations, however, would deal with the issues raised by people who buy cheap drones from a local store and then decide to misuse them. Some have suggested that commercially available drones should be fitted with altimeters that prevent them from flying above the legal 400 feet, but it’s unclear whether the FAA would endorse that. Altimeters could also be disabled.

“There’s no speed limits on our cars. We’re trusting that humans won’t fly 140 mph on our roads,” Merced said.