Emerging Tech

Drone, Ferris Wheel Altercation a Worrying Sign of the Times

A drone crashed into the 175-foot-tall Seattle Great Wheel last week, triggering a police investigation. The Great Wheel is a ferris wheel near the downtown Seattle waterfront. No damage or injuries were reported in the crash.

“I’m surprised this doesn’t happen more often,” commented Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group.

Drones have become a problem in America’s skies, causing damage and personal injury and interfering with firefighters’ efforts and commercial flights.

The Federal Aviation Administration in February issued a notice of proposed rule-making for the operation and certification of drones.

It convened a task force, which will report back this week with recommendations for registration of unmanned aircraft systems.

The FAA is late — drone flights were scheduled to be integrated into the U.S. national airspace system by Sept. 30, Wayne Plucker, a research director at Frost & Sullivan, told TechNewsWorld.

Some state governments have begunissuing their own regulations.

There Oughta Be a Law

The recommendations will apply only to commercial unmanned aircraft, said Tom McMahon, spokesperson for theAssociation for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

“Consumer drones are not specifically regulated by the FAA or any other agency in the federal government,” but the FAA “can come after you for reckless endangerment,” he told TechNewsWorld. Local ordinances and state regulations also apply.

The FAA reportedly filed charges against 20 drone operators, five of whom settled their cases by paying a fine.

However, “we have underfunded, understaffed police departments not equipped to track and ground drones,” Enderle told TechNewsWorld. “Until that gets fixed or we get a couple of folks tried for murder or massive damage, the problem will likely continue to increase.”

The model aircraft community has worked with the FAA for years and established guidelines for the safe use of unmanned aircraft, McMahon said.

Model aircraft builders “are pretty good about following these guidelines, which is why no specific regulations have been set up,” he said.

The situation is changing as ready-to-fly drones become cheaper and more sophisticated — anyone can plunk down a few hundred dollars and get one without having to build it by hand.

UAS Headaches

Drones hampered firefighting aircraft tackling at least 13 wildfires this year, and commercial pilots have reported spotting drones while coming in for a landing at various U.S. airports.

Late last month, adrone crashed into power lines in Los Angeles, cutting the electricity to nearly 700 users. In September, onefell onto the head of an 11-month-old girl in Pasadena, California, causing cuts and bruises.

In October, Air Line Pilots Association President Tim Canoll testified before the House of Representatives on the need to manage UAS operations to protect the safety of the U.S. national airspace system.

What the FAA Proposes

The FAA’s proposed rules will apply to unmanned aircraft weighing less than 55 pounds put to commercial use.

Its recommendations include the following:

  • The aircraft must remain within visual line of sight of operators at all times;
  • They may not operate over any third parties not directly involved in their operation;
  • They will be restricted to daylight flights only;
  • They must yield right-of-way to other aircraft, manned or unmanned;
  • Operators must pass an initial aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA-approved testing center and repeat that every 24 months, be vetted by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, obtain an unmanned aircraft operator certificate with a small UAS rating, and be at least 17 years old.

Crime and Punishment

Regulating UAS flights “is more about convincing people not to [operate them in a dangerous manner] than it is about catching everyone,” Enderle said. “For that, you need a couple of strong examples that keep prudent people in line.”

The FAA “needs to make severe examples of any they manage to catch,” suggested Frost & Sullivan’s Plucker, but “the technology to catch them is, unfortunately, lacking.”

Richard Adhikari

Richard Adhikari has written about high-tech for leading industry publications since the 1990s and wonders where it's all leading to. Will implanted RFID chips in humans be the Mark of the Beast? Will nanotech solve our coming food crisis? Does Sturgeon's Law still hold true? You can connect with Richard on Google+.

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