Other parts of this series:
Suddenly drones are everywhere, exploring everything. But are they safe?
Drones have appeared on the scene like a flock of soaring birds or a cloud of bats out of hell–depending on your view of them. They are not new, of course. Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) calls them, have been used for military purposes since World War I. Hobbyists have enjoyed them for decades. And now the business world, including the insurance industry, is finding new uses for these agile vehicles. Their numbers used to be small and they flew under most people’s radar, but that’s all changed. Drones suddenly are everywhere.
New FAA rules that make it much easier to become a commercial drone pilot went into effect in late August and are at least partly responsible for the sudden upsurge in commercial drone use. In the past, would-be commercial drone operators had an onerous process that required them first to get traditional pilot’s licenses, then seek federal approval to fly a drone. Each application would actually be an exemption from rules that had originally been promulgated for manned aircraft and would need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
Under the “Small UAS (unmanned aircraft systems) Rule” sometimes called “Part 107,” anyone over 16 need only pass a certification test and agree to abide by a specific set of rules to become a drone pilot. The rules primarily require that all unmanned aircraft be registered, place limits on vehicle weight, speed and height they can fly and confine drone flights to daylight hours. Also, drones must not fly over people and must avoid flying over certainly locations, including Washington, D.C. But the FAA is attempting to balance safety with growth, so it provides an on-line process and a video encouraging those with a real need to do more than is allowed—perhaps fly after dark or to altitudes a bit higher than the 400-foot limit—to seek a waiver from specific rules.
After the new rules were announced, FAA Administrator Michael Heurta told National Public Radio his agency expects a 300 percent increase in commercial drones within a year, going from 20,000 registered this summer to 600,000. Indeed, more than 3,000 people preregistered for the certification test on the first day registration opened.
These new regulations are a boon for the insurance industry, which already uses drones with cameras and sensors to quickly gather information for more accurate underwriting and faster claims settlements. They can, for example, explore buildings after a big fire or catastrophic storm, well before it is safe for human adjustors to enter. And as commercial-drone use grows, the industry will undoubtedly find additional uses for them. But the expansion of commercial drones will inevitably be accompanied by more injuries to people and property and increased danger to manned aircraft.
During his performance at a concert in Mexico, last year, singer Julio Iglesias cut his hand reaching for a Drone hovering nearby. In Brooklyn, one of a restaurant’s mistletoe-carrying drones, meant to encourage romance during the Christmas season, went out of control and clipped the nose of a newspaper photographer covering the restaurant’s promotion. Drones have crashed on the White House lawn, marred a World Cup Slalom Ski Race in Norway and struck the front of a small plane flying into London’s Heathrow Airport.
Drone accident statistics tend to be unreliable. The FAA requires reporting only accidents that result in actual injuries or property damage over $500, so relatively few are reported and details often are missing. Even so, the FAA now receives about 100 reports a month of drones operating near airplanes, helicopters and airports, some of them reported as near misses. And in one very small study, researchers in Australia sampling 152 global drone events found that these drone accidents more often were caused by technical problems—especially by loss of communication or radio signal between the drone and the controls—than by human error.
Next week I’ll discuss several approaches to making drones safer.
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