Privacy and safety issues cloud the future of a rapidly growing drone industry even as the number of people flying unmanned aerial vehicles rises exponentially, authorities say.
The industry holds economic and technological promise, but also potential danger in the skies and concerns about infringing on privacy of those on the ground.
“The industry is out there, and it’s kind of running wild a little bit right now,” said Rex Damschroder, a pilot for nearly 50 years, an airport manager and a former state lawmaker from Fremont. “There’s responsible operators, but there’s a lot of amateurs, too. … You could be putting a lot of lives in jeopardy.”
The economic potential of a new industry and the uses drone technology can bring will revolutionize society, advocates say.
Among a myriad of uses, drones have searched for the missing, surveyed forest fires and inspected power lines, and in the future, if companies and express delivery services have their way, could drop-off products to your door.
“This is kind of a technology that, really, since the invention of flight this is something that is going to change the course of aviation and how aviation operates,” said Deborah Norris, Sinclair Community College vice president of workforce development and corporate services.
The Miami Valley region has invested in the drone industry’s future growth, from Sinclair’s $5 million National Unmanned Aerial Systems Training Center in downtown Dayton, to groundbreaking research at the Air Force Research Laboratory to a growing community of new and pioneering commercial users.
Frustration at pace
Despite concerns, industry and drone advocates, such as the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, have criticized the Federal Aviation Administration for missing a congressional deadline to integrate drones into the national air space by last month.
The FAA choose six UAV flight test sites throughout the country to drive integration into the national air space. Ohio and Indiana submitted a combined bid to land one of the sites, but the FAA rejected it in favor of others.
The agency has drafted rules for the commercial operation of drones that could be adopted by next spring, said FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Cory.
“I have a high degree of frustration these rules have not been adopted,” said Frank J. Beafore, executive director of UAS manufacturer SelectTech Geospatial in Springfield. “They should have had this thing … adopted by now. It slows down U.S. industry specifically because many other countries already have rules in place.”
The FAA has approved more than 1,800 requests to fly drones as it finalizes rules to fly UAVs commercially.
The rules would apply to small unmanned aerial vehicles less than 55 pounds and restricted to a maximum of 500 feet in altitude unless air traffic controllers have given permission to fly higher. An operator would have to fly in daylight, keep a UAV within visual line of sight and throttle speeds to no more than 100 miles per hour.
Commercial UAV operators would have to pass an FAA test on aeronautics, a Transportation Security Administration background check, and obtain a UAV operator certificate, among other requirements.
“The United States has the safest aviation system in the world, and our goal is to integrate this new and important technology while maintaining the highest levels of safety,” Cory said.
Drone sightings skyrocket
As more drones take to the air, more pilots have reported sightings.
FAA statistics showed pilots in the cockpit reported 952 sightings of drones through Oct. 5 this year compared to 238 sightings in all of 2014, the agency said.
“Both the volume of the events and many of the event descriptions are sobering reminders to the industry that the risk of a collision between a UAS and an airline aircraft has increased significantly,” Capt. Tim Canoll, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, said in written testimony this month to the U.S. House subcommittee on aviation exploring the safety of unmanned aerial vehicles.
In one case in July in New Jersey, a regional turboprop plane on final approach to land reported a remote controlled aircraft 50 feet below. And in April near Seattle, a pilot of an airliner descending through 3,500 feet reported a drone 100 to 200 feet under the plane’s left wing, Canoll told congressional lawmakers.
Despite pressure on the FAA to integrate drones quickly, ALPA has urged Congress to strengthen FAA oversight of drone operations to decrease the risk of a mid-air collision.
“We simply cannot afford to miss critical steps in technological design standards and safety analyses in an attempt to hastily satisfy a market demand, because the impacts to the safety of the (national airspace) could be profound, far outweighing any benefits,” Canoll’s said in written comments to the House.
The Academy of Model Aeronautics, headquartered in Muncie, Ind., and representing more than 180,000 members, called into question the FAA statistics. AMA says it analyzed 764 of the reported sightings and called them “a hodgepodge of reports.”
Contrary to an initial FAA statement in August and media reports based on those findings, the AMA said, “the number of ‘close calls’ appears to be in dozens, not the hundreds.”
The AMA analysis found in 51 percent of the sightings no evasive action was taken compared to 1.3 percent of cases when it was. The rest of the records do not indicate if evasive action happened, AMA said.
Some sightings involved military or commercial drones, or even birds, and some operators who were reported to the FAA were flying within the rules, AMA said in its analysis.
“Just because there were a thousand sightings does not mean there were a thousand dangerous situations,” Beafore said.
AMA has joined in a public education outreach with celebrities to urge drone operators to fly safely and has called for “hefty fines” for those who are aggressive or reckless in flight, among other recommendations.
No license required
Unlike commercial operators who are required to have a pilot’s license and Federal Aviation Administration permission to fly, hobbyists who fly drones aren’t required to have training or a license.
Mass market appeal of the planes has skyrocketed sales. The Consumer Electronics Association estimated 700,000 small drones will be sold this year and projects 1.1 million unit sales in 2016.
“You can pretty much pop one of these out of the box and teach yourself to fly,” said Jeff Nance, director of marketing at the Indiana-headquartered Academy of Model Aeronautics.
The model aeronautics industry says radio-controlled model planes have flown safely for decades and urged today’s drone operators to follow flying tips in a “Know Before You Fly” campaign, he said.
“We’re concerned about safety not only around aircraft but safety everywhere,” Nance said. Some manufacturers include information to websites to learn how to safely fly the drones.
But Nance suggested licensing of hobbyists is not the answer. “We think the best thing is education and not a lot of regulation,” he said.
Many laws on the books could curb unwanted surveillance or reckless flying, he said.
AMA’s more than 180,000 members are “well-educated” about flying rules, he said.
“It’s the general public who is buying these and doesn’t understand there are rules and guidelines,” he said.
Need to obey aviation laws
Sinclair emphasizes to students how to fly drones safely, according to Andrew Shepherd, program director of UAS education at Sinclair. “We don’t want to restrict the ability of people to go out and have fun and be hobbyists,” he added, but “I think it’s always helpful to have training.”
“What you’re seeing on the news, hobbyists, people not necessarily flying for commercial purposes, don’t know they are breaking the rules,” he said.
James W. Coon, Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association senior vice president of government affairs, said drones are here to stay, but operators should have to take a course to understand the basics of safe flight.
“That’s really what we’re trying to do —- ensure that these unmanned systems are safely integrated into the national air space,” he said.
But in one long-time pilot’s estimation, that’s not what’s happening.
“Most of the people flying the drones aren’t licensed pilots and don’t understand the air space,” Damschroder said.
Unlike radio-controlled model airplanes, many drones have cameras and an incentive for people to fly in areas they normally don’t or shouldn’t, he said.
“If you have a mechanical failure of your drone, and it will happen, you’ve got a falling ball of lead that has the potential of killing people,” he said.
Drones have the potential, just as a bird does, to get sucked into a jetliner’s engines or hit an airplane and cause damage, he said.
“You could actually bring down a jet, so it is imperative that we have regulations out there for people flying drones,” Damschroder said. “… These drones have the capability of being a problem if the operators would want to be devious.”
Many off-the-shelf UAVs face an unseen vulnerability of being “very easily hackable,” said Rusty Baldwin, director of research at the Cyber Center of Excellence at Riverside Research in Beavercreek.
“If a (hacker) wanted to cause mischief or even a catastrophe, the price of entry to be able to do that is very low,” he said.
States, communities, individuals and organizations across the country have heightened concerns about the potential of drones to infringe on privacy, too.
This month, California enacted a law that bans drones flying over private property to snap photos, shoot video or record sound of a person without permission, according to the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
The center has filed a lawsuit against the FAA to establish privacy rules for the operation of commercial drones.
“Drones are flying cameras, first and foremost,” said Alan Butler, a lawyer with the Washington, D.C. based-center. “They are seeing, potentially recording from afar. Really, it’s a technology that lends itself towards abuse.
“If we’re going to be allowing the uses of these devices … now is the moment to set down basic privacy standards,” he said.
In the Ohio Legislature, Damschroder introduced a bill to prevent law enforcement agencies flying drones on a warrantless search over concerns about privacy. The bill never had a final vote before the legislative session finished.
“I think law enforcement, private individuals, have to be well coached (on) what’s right, what’s legal and what’s safe and if that entails state legislation, I’m all for it,” he said.
The issue of government surveillance using drones to spy on people has raised concerns with the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio.
“What we don’t want to see drones used for … is government and really specifically law enforcement, to surveil people without a warrant,” said Gary A. Daniels, the ACLU’s chief lobbyist in Columbus.
The organization opposes law enforcement arming drones, he added.
“I think the temptation is going to be for law enforcement to use this technology simply because they have the resources to use it,” he said. “What we’ve been advocating for and working with lawmakers on … is some sort of statewide regulation and restrictions.”
Law enforcement would fly drones on search and rescue missions, marijuana eradication “and some limited surveillance,” said Robert A. Cornwell, executive director of the Buckeye State Sheriff’s Association.
A law enforcement agency would have to get a court order for any surveillance if drone-gathered evidence was going to be used in a criminal prosecution, he said.
Scot Ganow, a privacy law attorney in Dayton, said he was “hesitant to say a regulation is the answer to every privacy issue,” but existing laws “could be tweaked” to handle the issue of privacy and drones.
Beafore said the camera technology drones use is no different “if you’re flying a quadcopter or using a selfie stick.”
Laws in place today are meant to deter infringements on privacy, he said.
About this series
The Dayton Daily News is taking a closer look at the growing drone industry in the region. In this occasional series, we will deliver stories, photos and videos on the impact drones have on privacy concerns and public safety; and how they are used to help the military, local businesses and aviation hobbyists.