Drones are Ready for Takeoff

Will unmanned aerial vehicles—drones—soon take civilian passengers on pilotless flights?

Engineer Tad McGeer, at his company's headquarters near Bingen, Washington, played a key role in getting the civilian drone industry off the ground. (Robbie McClaran)
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The Brookings Institution’s Singer believes that the adjustment to drones will be as challenging as the adjustment to horseless carriages at the start of the 20th century. Regulatory issues are the main reason the Teal Group, aerospace industry analysts, recently estimated that the nonmilitary portion of the drone market will grow only to $500 million a year by 2020, up from $300 million now. Meanwhile, the military market will double, from $5 billion worldwide today.

The problem, says John Allen, the FAA’s director of flight standards, is that “there are too many lost [communications] links now. Some would say it’s not that big a deal—‘The aircraft continues to fly, it’s not going to come plummeting to earth.’ ” Drones are typically programmed to go into a holding pattern—or return to base—when they lose contact with ground control. “Well, that might be fine in a combat environment,” Allen says, “but in a civil environment, with a very congested national airspace, that creates a problem.”

Under current FAA rules, operators of unmanned aircraft must have a certificate of authorization; only 264 such certificates are active, most for research and development in remote areas. “What they would like,” says Allen, “is to not have to go for that permission every time,” and simply file a flight plan and take off, like manned aircraft. But human pilots can see and avoid small planes flying by visual flight rules. Many drones, he says, lack the technology to “sense and avoid.”

The FAA is considering rules that would continue to separate unmanned aircraft from conventional air traffic but relax restrictions on drones weighing less than 50 pounds and flying below 400 feet. Allen predicts the change, likely to take effect late next year, will spur entrepreneurs and government agencies to launch thousands of new drone applications. But opening the national airspace to larger drones—some with the wingspan of a passenger jet—will be more complicated, he says, requiring “a lot of cultural change” and more reliable technology.

One watchdog database lists more than 50 accidents involving large military drones since 2007. Most took place in Afghanistan or Iraq, where combat sometimes requires pushing a drone to unsafe extremes. But a Predator providing surveillance along the Mexican border crashed in this country, when an operator accidentally shut off its engine. Officials at U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the FAA disagree about whether the Predator’s domestic record adds up to a few minor mistakes over four years of safe civilian operations—or 350 times the accident rate for commercial aviation.

The concern expressed even by some in the drone community is that a careless accident early on could be a disaster for the entire industry. The first fatality involving a civilian drone has already occurred. In August 2009, a Yamaha RMAX helicopter, a commercial drone about the size of a motorcycle, crashed while crop-dusting a field in South Korea. Part of the rotor sheared off and penetrated the abdomen of a bystander, who bled to death. Yamaha has since halted RMAX production.

“We have accidents more often because we’re not carrying people,” says Sliwa. “The safety systems on manned aircraft are designed for a ten-to-the-minus-six probability of an accident.” That’s one in a million. For unmanned aircraft, he said, it’s more like a ten-to-the-minus-four thing. That’s one in 10,000. “But we’ll get there. Back when our parents were growing up, there was a form of transport you would not get into without a human operator, and that was an elevator. Now we step in and push a button.”

But the real obstacle, McGeer argues, isn’t regulation—it’s cost. There are a lot of human pilots out there, and they love what they do. So their services come cheap. You can rent a piloted Cessna for as little as $100 an hour, he says.

Unmanned aircraft typically require at least two people, and sometimes many more, doing ground control. The work involves sitting in front of a computer for hours at a time, so no one does it for fun. Drones also represent a relatively new technology, with high research and other start-up costs for a product that’s still manufactured in relatively small numbers.

Costs will almost inevitably come down. For instance, it may be possible to develop systems that enable one ground controller to handle four or five drones at a time. To alleviate FAA concerns about that approach, Insitu executive Paul McDuffee suggests, a UPS or FedEx plane might have one human pilot to communicate with air traffic control—and three unmanned planes flying in formation behind. It is, he acknowledges, “a Buck Rogers theoretical concept.” McGeer is skeptical. Congressional earmarks may support a few civilian uses, but earmarks are drying up. For now, he believes the military is likely to remain the primary buyer of unmanned aircraft.

About Richard Conniff
Richard Conniff

Richard Conniff, a Smithsonian contributor since 1982, is the author of seven books about human and animal behavior.

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