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The solution to drone safety is to empower the smallest ones

Recently, two young men installing animal-monitoring cameras in a remote part of Mexico’s Bachiniva suffered an accident. One fell 10 meters from a cliff, suffering several fractures. An amateur pilot using his three-pound consumer drone located the missing men, delivered medical supplies to them and directed rescuers to their exact location.

Drones are seeing increasing use in search-and-rescue and other operations like this, carried out by citizen pilots for the common good. Yet under coming FAA regulations, using a drone to save a life could be illegal—while using the same drone in the same location for tourist photos would be perfectly fine. 

{mosads}Such a bizarre outcome would be the result of setting the rules for all drones from zero to 55 pounds, according to operational purpose, rather than operational safety.  But the potential for life-saving uses, as well as vast economic opportunities for small businesses, mean it’s time to empower the smallest class of drones and come up with a “micro” drone regulatory category in 2016. Thankfully, this approach has recently been proposed by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) in his Commercial UAS Modernization Act.

A weight threshold sometimes makes little sense. Someone last year waited three months for the FAA to approve the commercial operation of a motorized paper airplane weighing under one ounce.  The paper-airplane operator needs a pilot’s license and has to comply with 31 conditions including maintaining a 500-foot distance from persons, vessels, vehicles and structures.

Though 2015 was filled with alarmist headlines about the hypothetical risks of civilian drones and occasional accidents, the drone story of the year was actually the remarkable win for public safety, as the technology was repeatedly deployed to save lives in ways previously impossible. Real reports highlighted flood victims saved, missing people rescued, sharks spotted at beaches, and fires extinguished — all with the help of so-called “consumer” drones. 

In those life-saving situations, it was often small drones operated by recreational users – painted by some media as an untrained, unlicensed, daredevil group — ready to help because they actually knew how to use the technology safely and responsibly. 

Simplifying the regulations for drones below two kilograms would empower people to use drones as tools to help each other, their communities and their small businesses. The regulatory framework in Blumenauer’s bill is familiar and easy to understand, essentially matching hobbyist rules that already promote safety:  Fly below 400 feet, at least five miles from airports, and within visual line of sight.

It would also empower the drone industry to communicate these requirements — and even incorporate them into product features. A simple and accessible regulatory category will spur manufacturers to implement the best features into the smallest products that inherently pose the lowest risks.  Incentivizing operators to use micro systems would immediately make the national airspace safer.

We know from existing FAA bird-collision data that birds that weigh about the same as micro drones do not bring down aircraft. In low-altitude locations away from airports, precisely where micro drones would be permitted to fly under simplified rules, there has never been a reported aviation fatality attributed to a small or medium bird since data collection began in 1990. Considering that there are an estimated 10 billion birds in the United States, zero fatalities over a 25-year period is a compelling number. So are the tens of millions of operational hours of micro drones by recreational users worldwide without a single reported fatality.

A micro rule would also eliminate philosophical debate about whether an operation using a small drone is commercial or recreational.  For many applications, like volunteer search and rescue, education, academic research, and community projects, the point is debatable—and irrelevant. We must create an avenue to safety compliance that isn’t frontloaded with red tape.

A micro rule transforms the smallest class of drones into safe, everyday tools for firefighters, roof inspectors, insurance adjusters, real-estate agents, farmers, independent videographers, and powerline technicians.  Small drones used in commercial applications will also save many lives, by replacing the hazards of infrastructure inspection with the safety of drone photography

Existing data and common sense dictate it is time for the United States to implement a micro drone rule in 2016. After all, if you had the opportunity to save lives, encourage innovation, build small businesses, and simultaneously save the federal government an enormous amount of money, would you do it? Or would you wait until you were the one lost on the hiking trail?

Schulman is vice president of Policy & Legal Affairs at DJI, the world’s largest consumer drone company.

Tags Earl Blumenauer

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