Commercial drone flights are set to take off in a big way as soon as new federal rules—set to be written by 2015—are in place. Once those regulations are in place, Reuters reports, the Federal Aviation Administration predicts that the number of drones certified for use will jump from the few hundreds currently used for research and public safety to 7,500 within just five years.
But, as an in-depth investigative report by the Washington Post shows, drones are maybe not quite as safe and reliable as one might hope. The Post's investigation found that even the military is having problems keeping its multi-million-dollar drones in the air. And, if the military's having trouble, that could be a clue to the dangers posed by fleets of less reliable machines operated by less experienced pilots.
The U.S. military has around 10,000 drones in its fleet, says the Post, ranging from tiny little Wasps built to carry a camera, to massive Predators and Reapers, built to carry missiles. The Post filed Freedom of Information Act requests to figure out when, where and how these unmanned drones have crashed. Since 2001, the paper found, at least 418 drones have been involved in major crashes. Nearly half of these 418 crashes caused at least $2 million in damage or resulted in the destruction of the airplane. Nearly half of all the Predators have had a serious accident.
Given that these are military planes, most of them went down in war zones under hostile conditions. But not all of them, says the Post. A quarter went down in the U.S. during testing and training: in 2012 a drone crashed outside an elementary school in Pennsylvania, and another massive one crashed and started a fire in Maryland.
Military drones have slammed into homes, farms, runways, highways, waterways and, in one case, an Air Force C-130 Hercules transport plane in midair. No one has died in a drone accident, but the documents show that many catastrophes have been narrowly averted, often by a few feet, or a few seconds, or pure luck.
Some of the crashes were caused by pilot error, and some by manufacturing defects. Some stemmed from the peculiarities of drones themselves. If the satellite link that gives the pilot control goes dead, the drone is left flying free.
In September 2009, an armed Reaper drone, with a 66-foot wingspan, flew on the loose across Afghanistan after its handlers lost control of the aircraft. U.S. fighter jets shot it down as it neared Tajikistan.
On the home front, drones flown by researchers and the public aren't faring any better. Events of reckless piloting, where a drone operator was buzzing too close to an airport, have put hundreds of lives at risk.
Drones are here, and soon they're likely to be here en masse. Incorporating this new technology, and doing it safely, is going to require the serious efforts of everyone looking to share the air.