Lagging Drone Safety Called No Reason to Slow Rollout

The accident rate for unmanned drones was worse than all other types of aircraft during the past 20 years, though it’s improving rapidly, a U.S. Senate hearing was told today.

That safety record, which is approaching the crash rate of traditional aircraft, isn’t reason to slow the coming boom in civilian uses for drones, Mary Cummings, director of Duke University’s Humans and Autonomy Laboratory, told the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee today.

Some military drones, such as the General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. Predator, are now safer than privately operated planes, she said.

“As a former fighter pilot and a private pilot, I understand the importance of what I am saying -- which is that a drone is, on average, a better pilot than I am,” she said.

Global sales of civilian and military drones may reach $89 billion during the next decade, according to a forecast by the Teal Group Corp., a Fairfax, Virginia-based aerospace research company, and Congress has ordered the Federal Aviation Administration to craft rules for civilian operations by 2015.

Cummings didn’t provide specific data about the rates of drone accidents on models other than the Predator.

The chief of the FAA, which Dec. 30 granted approvals for six drone test and research sites across the U.S., urged caution about introducing the aircraft into the skies too quickly.

‘Inherently Different’

Because a drone’s operator remains on the ground, aspects of unmanned craft are “inherently different” from traditional planes and helicopters, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said.

While the agency will be able to integrate drones into the aviation system as it has done with other new technology, it is taking a “measured” approach, Huerta said.

“Realistically, neither the technical nor operational capabilities necessary exist today to implement the opportunities described by visionaries, but their promises for 21st century conveniences are compelling,” he said.

The hurdles for safe operation include developing technology that lets a drone fly and land safely if its radio link to the operator is lost, he said. They must also be capable of detecting and avoiding nearby aircraft if they fly among other planes.

Senators urged caution in the introduction of drones because of safety and privacy issues.

Startling Demonstration

“These are questions that demand answers,” Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, told the committee. Feinstein, who isn’t a member of the panel, was allowed to testify as the first witness.

She described looking out a window at her house during a drone demonstration and being startled as the small craft hovered just outside.

“There was a drone right there at the window looking out at me,” she said. “Obviously, the pilot of the drone had some surprise because the drone wheeled around and crashed.”

“These aircraft are exciting, but they also raise some significant concerns,” said Senator Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat and chairman of the committee.

The panel heard a plea from a drone manufacturer that has succeeded in other countries at getting swifter approvals than in the U.S.

Japan’s Yamaha Motor Co. has sold more than 2,600 RMAX remote-controlled helicopters for crop dusting and other agricultural purposes, Henio Arcangeli, vice president of corporate planning for the firm’s U.S. subsidiary, said in testimony.

Manufacturer’s Plea

“There is mounting commercial interest and need for the RMAX from farmers and growers in this country,” Arcangeli said. Yamaha Motor Corp. U.S.A. is based in Cypress, California.

The helicopter, which weighs 140 pounds (64 kilograms) and is 9 feet (2.7 meters) long, has been used for more than 20 years in Japan and more recently in South Korea and Australia, he said. It’s safer than manned crop dusters and uses less fuel and chemicals, he said.

While it’s been tested in California orchards and vineyards, it isn’t approved for commercial use in the U.S., he said. He urged Congress to push the FAA to let the helicopter fly in unpopulated areas at low altitudes.

The company in Australia will only lease them to businesses with pilots who have received company-approved training, and expects a similar business model if it gets approval to operate in the U.S., he said.

Privacy Issues

Congress also needs to address the potential for loss of privacy as drone flights increase, said Christopher Calabrese, legislative counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The small, inexpensive flying machines, capable of carrying high-definition cameras and other sensors, may overwhelm the existing legal protections of privacy, he said.

He urged lawmakers to require law enforcement agencies to get a warrant before using drones for surveillance.

Senator Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, said the FAA’s privacy policy for drone use at the six test sites isn’t sufficient to protect people. He urged Huerta to take a greater role in privacy.

“If I look up and see a drone flying over my house under the FAA’s current plan, is there any way I could find out what information that drone is collecting?” Markey said.

The answer, he said, is no.

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