Drones have been criticized for causing accidents and injuries since their introduction in California. However, Palo Alto is evaluating whether they can harness this technology to save lives.
According to CBS News, the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) is evaluating the city’s proposal to use drones to transport blood to a hospital during emergencies. Is this a step forward for health care, or could this proposal increase the risk of accidents in the city?
Understanding the benefits
With traffic, the hospital reports that an emergency blood delivery by courier can take anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes. In contrast, a drone can accomplish the same task in approximately 10 minutes. Blood can be delivered to patients in a fraction of the time, significantly benefiting injured persons.
Understanding the risks
While some are excited about the possible benefits that drones may bring to the health care industry, others remained concerned about safety. Currently, the FAA requires that all drones remain within the operator’s line of sight. To test this proposal, they would wave this regulation, allowing drones to complete their trip without direct operator visibility. Some concerns include:
- Any technological glitches could cause the drone to hit homes or pedestrians in the path of travel.
- Without an operator watching the drone throughout travel, there is no one to anticipate, identify and quickly correct any issues during flight.
- Drones pose a risk to airplanes and are forbidden to fly near airports. Could this plan endanger helicopters taking emergency patients to hospitals and other planes in the area?
- Can we trust drones to safely transport blood and other valuable medical supplies?
A relatively new concept, it will require much testing and debate before authorities determine whether drones can and should transport health care materials. While there are possible benefits, it is impossible to ignore the potential dangers.
More and more Californians are embracing drones as hobbyists. They have become a favorite activity for children and parents alike. Unfortunately, along with the increase of technological zeal has been a significant increase in drone accidents and injuries.
While they may look harmless, drones can easily cause significant injuries if they hit a pedestrian. But what is causing drones to hit humans?
Factors causing serious accidents
While a number of unique factors can cause a drone to hit a pedestrian, some of the most common include:
- The drone runs out of battery and falls
- Inexperienced operators struggling to control its flight path
- The drone crashes into a tree, building or other object and falls
- Flying drones in no-fly zones and populated areas
- The drone leaves the operator’s line of sight
Many people purchase drones for amusement and think of them as a toy. Unfortunately, they are more difficult to control than many purchasers anticipate. New operators can quickly lose control of the drone due to wind, inexperience navigating the controls and other unexpected events. If they lose control of the drone for even a few seconds, it can easily hit and damage surrounding property or people in the area.
What can new operators do to increase safety?
Fortunately, there are ways to safely prepare for your new drone. Do not try to figure out how to handle your drone by immediately taking it out to fly. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) created an app for smartphones called B4UFly, and offers safety tips on a website of the same name. Take the necessary time to acquaint yourself with the technology and safety tips before you take the drone outside to prevent serious pedestrian accidents.
Drones interfering with other aircraft in the sky is becoming an increasing problem. Though no fatalities have occurred yet, it may only be a matter of time.
Drones can create risky flying conditions for other aircraft. Drones can weigh up to 50 pounds, they can disrupt the flight pattern enough to cause pilots to veer off course or they can create the need for pilots to make emergency landings. It may only be a matter of time before more serious incidents occur.
The following are just some of the drone incidents or crashes have been reported in the United States and elsewhere in the world:
- As recently as April 16, 2018, Heathrow Airport in London reported a drone flying within 20 feet above a 160-passenger commercial flight that was already 4,800 feet in the air. The United Kingdom, though not held to the FAA rules in the United States, has its own safety rules for flying drones in the UK skies. The UK rules overlap with US rules and state that the drone must be flown in line of sight and no higher than 400 feet.
- In February of 2018, a crash in South Carolina was linked to a drone flying near a helicopter. The helicopter pilot swerved to avoid hitting the drone and struck a tree. This was the first report of an aviation accident involving a drone in the United States. The crash occurred when a pilot in training was flying low to the ground to practice that low-flying maneuver, and the drone flew right into the line of the pilot’s sight, according to the report.
- On Feb 9, 2018, a drone struck a helicopter in on the island of Kauai in Hawaii, resulting in scratches to the helicopter. No injuries were reported.
- On October 12, 2017, a Canadian incident occurred in Quebec City last year when a drone struck a small, 8-seater passenger plane, causing minor damage to a wing.
- On September 21, 2017, a New York City drone incident involved an Army helicopter that was struck by a privately-owned drone. The FAA requires drones to be flown in the line of sight of the operator, but in this case the drone operator let the drone get out of the line of sight and the collision occurred. The Army pilot landed the helicopter safely.
Fortunately, in all cases reported above, the pilots managed to land their aircraft safely and incurred typically only minor damage to their planes or helicopters.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has clear guidelines for drone operators. Following the FAA rules could have prevented any one of these crashes. Many drone owners do follow the rules, but as noted by a leader from a hobbyist group, other drone operators are rebellious and will not follow the rules no matter what the rules are.
In April of 2018, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued a new report on human collisions with drones. Although the FAA admits the figures on drone crashes with humans may be too early to fully predict, they did find data on how much damage a drone may cause when colliding with someone on the ground.
What follows are their findings. These are not the only injuries found, but they were the most common.
Most common injuries
The study narrowed down the injuries to three of the most common:
- Cuts or lacerations, which include any impact that breaks the skin such as a propeller blade strike.
- “Blunt force trauma,” which could mean any physical injury where a person is struck by a drone, but there isn’t necessarily a break in the skin. These injuries can include bruising, internal bleeding, head wounds or other injuries that may be serious or result in death.
- Deep wounds that break the skin (penetrating wounds), also referred to as penetrating because of the nature of the entry site. Drones are prone to these such as when a rudder or wing strikes someone, which could cause the drone part to lodge itself into the skin or at least create a deep incision.
A prior study found different results
In 2017, an article in Fortune Magazine reported on a drone injuries study using crash test dummies. In that report released only a year ago, the FAA concluded that drones which flew above people were not a serious threat, according to the article.
Both studies included tests done in conjunction with multiple universities participating in the studies. Many factors are involved in testing such as wind resistance, material from which the drones are made, speed at which the drones are flown, cargo being flown, weight of the drone and any safety measures put in place such as blade guards.
Remember the rules
The FAA has specifically forbidden drone owners to fly these small unmanned aircraft systems over people. As drone ownership and use continue to grow in popularity, more information will become known about injuries and damage caused by these unmanned flying machines. In the meantime, following the rules and laws put in place by the FAA could keep your drones intact and bystanders unharmed.
Most drone enthusiasts follow the rules. They generally know what the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and California state laws say about using drones. Whether using the technology for profit or for fun, running afoul of the law isn’t usually a concern for responsible drone owners.
That hasn’t stopped some California municipalities from implementing measures to control drone activity, however. The Oceanside police department recently received an anti-drone “gun” that can be used to shoot down unauthorized drones. It may not be long before other jurisdictions follow suit.
Anti-drone technology keeping pace with drone technology
As this most recent development exemplifies, some leaders view widespread drone use with skepticism. Concerns over privacy and safety remain top of mind for many citizens and public officials alike, despite California’s strict laws and FAA regulations regarding drone use. As such, some companies like IXI Technology, which donated its anti-drone gun to the Oceanside PD, are poised to take their share of the market by developing anti-drone solutions.
This particular device disrupts drone control systems by jamming radio frequencies. Doing so will force the drone to hover where it is, land, or return to its home base, thereby leading law enforcement to the drone operator for possible arrest. It therefore offers law enforcement a more sophisticated option for neutralizing potential drone threats, particularly because it can be aimed like a shotgun.
Is it legal?
This is the perennial question asked by the public, the industry and local governments as drone technology advances. The laws governing drone use for commercial and personal purposes are constantly playing catch-up to the technology. Compounding this problem are the facts of any particular situation where police shoot down what they believe to be an unauthorized drone, which will naturally differ on a case-by-case basis.
For its part, the Oceanside police department indicates their new anti-drone gun will be used primarily in emergency situations where lives are at stake. It specifically cited disruptions caused by unauthorized drone use during the California wildfires last year as the main reason for seeking an anti-drone solution.
Only time will tell when and how often such technology may be used, for good or bad. Shooting down drones that interfere with rescue efforts or violate no-fly zones is one thing. What happens when the target is a responsible, law-abiding drone owner?
In the U.S., drone operation is a rapidly growing hobby. As recreational aviators have taken to the sky in droves, they’ve largely done so without burdensome federal regulation. If one particular company gets it way, however, that could all change.
Alphabet Inc. is leading the charge to encourage congress to enact stricter regulations on drone hobbyists. The company, which plans to launch a commercial drone delivery service, is hitting back against an exemption that it sees as unfair to the business community. In their effort to level the playing field, Alphabet Inc.’s actions could mean a whole new set of rules for the casual drone pilot.
Previously clear skies
In 2012, a law was passed by congress that exempted drone hobbyists from U.S. aviation regulations. This provision accounts for the fact that recreational drone operators must adhere to users’ group rules, which by and large encourage safe operation. As the drone landscape has changed considerably since 2012, however, the Commercial Drone Alliance–a larger trade group that includes Alphabet Inc.–argues that this allows hobbyists to skirt Federal Aviation Administration rules.
The Academy of Model Aeronautics, which is America’s oldest hobby group, has said that additional restrictions aren’t necessary. For their part, the group does acknowledge that renegade drone operators should face consequences.
This push comes at interesting time for drone regulations. The FAA is currently working on new rules that would require nearly all drones to broadcast their identities as a safety measure. More and more companies are also seeking changes to existing laws that would make commercial drone use far more viable. To be sure, federal drone laws could be on the precipice of a major shakeup for corporations and hobbyists alike.
The prospect of commercial drones being used for delivery purposes is an exciting one. The advent of rapid drone delivery for small goods could very well prove revolutionary in the coming future. While this ever-advancing technology is a potential boon for the e-commerce industry, one California company is exploring ways that drones could improve health care as well.
Zipline, a surging startup in the drone space, is currently testing what would be the fastest drone in the world. Hitting airspeeds of up to 80 mph, Zipline’s new aircraft could be an incredible logistics asset for major retailers like Amazon. The company, however, is also working on some nobler ambitions: they’re aiming to use drones to deliver blood to areas that desperately need it.
How the technology works
Zipline’s humanitarian designs for drone technology have already gone into effect. While many companies are still looking into establishing a drone infrastructure, Zipline has already done it in Rwanda, where they’ve been delivering blood to remote clinics.
The company launches its drones from Rwanda’s capital city of Kigali, which then travel over difficult terrain to locations where delivery would otherwise take up a costly amount of time. For individuals in dire need of blood transfusions, Zipline’s technology can be an actual lifesaver.
For their part, the company’s team in Rwanda handles the entire delivery process from start to finish. From a medical worker placing a blood order, to then locating the correct product in the distribution center, loading it and programming the flight path, Zipline keeps everything in-house. This streamlined approach has allowed the company to deliver roughly 25 percent of Rwanda’s blood supply, which translates to some 7,000 bags of blood.
Will the FAA allow this practice in the U.S.?
With plans to set up additional operations in Tanzania, Zipline also has an eye on bringing their efforts back home to America. Current Federal Aviation Administration rules, however, are somewhat prohibitive to the company’s progress.
Under the existing regulations, commercial drones must stay within the eyesight of their operators. They also cannot fly higher than 400 feet. In a medical emergency, these rules would be a huge hindrance, but there are some signs that things could change.
The Unmanned Aircraft System Integration Pilot Program, due to launch soon, will allow some companies to work with state and local governments to test new drone technologies. What is gleaned from these tests is expected to heavily influence the FAA’s new drone laws. The FAA is also planning to approve five actual commercial drone use proposals in the near future, and Zipline is vying for one of those spots. Commercial drone laws, in the next few years especially, could be heading for a significant shakeup.
Drones have frequently been in the news for their potential as a delivery mechanism. With major e-commerce companies exploring their viability as a shipping solution, “delivery drones” could be everywhere sooner than later. Their utility makes sense for online retailers like Amazon–a company that ships countless small packages every day–but one big-box chain is looking to bring drones indoors.
Walmart recently submitted a patent application for what it calls a “providing drone assistance” system. At a fundamental level, this would allow shoppers to call on in-store drones when they have questions. It’s an innovation that could potentially revolutionize the brick-and-mortar shopping experience, as well as how drones function as a tool of business.
Drone assistance in the shopping aisle
Walmart’s application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office offers a slight glimpse into how this technology would work. When a shopper is curious about the location or price of an item, they would simply take out their phone and summon a drone. The drone would then be able to scan barcodes and answer questions via a display or machine-spoken answer.
This service drone would also be able to provide directions to where the item is located in the store. Walmart’s application suggests this would be done by either a visual projection or an audio cue that the customer could follow.
How far off is this technology?
It’s unclear whether or not Walmart will act on this patent in the immediate future. It’s worth noting, however, that the company recently tested inventory assessment robots at some Bay Area locations. While those trials were not of drone technology, they do signal that Walmart is taking a high-tech approach to their retail future in order to stay competitive.
How companies like Walmart and Amazon will use drones going forward is very much in the hands of the Federal Aviation Administration. As the FAA’s regulations currently stand, they are not applicable to indoor drone use. This could be good news for the implementation of in-store service drones, whereas some laws–namely that a drone must remain in the sights of its operator–have been a hindrance in the launch of drone delivery systems.
As civilian drones become more commonplace, laws and regulations are continuing to adapt accordingly. The White House, for its part, is seeking to address the concern that rapidly advancing drone technology could create a significant security threat.
At a recent Federal Aviation Administration-sponsored conference, an assistant to the president revealed that efforts have begun to give law enforcement agencies the ability to track and disable civilian drones. This could mean an overhaul of existing federal wiretapping and aviation laws that make it difficult to track drone flights.
Other new drone regulations could be coming
While lawmakers have introduced similar measures to control drones in the past, they’ve failed to end up attached to legislation. With some recent accidents involving drones picking up headlines–including the first confirmed collision with a manned aircraft–some have expressed urgency in calls for tightening regulations.
The FAA is also working on new regulations that would require some or all small civilian drones to broadcast their location and identity. The agency says that this information would be used for law enforcement purposes in the event that a threat is detected.
It’s worth noting that the technology is already in place to monitor drones via their radio-control signals. It is also possible to disable a drone remotely. If and when these new laws go into effect, law enforcement could begin acting on them in short order. For consumers, this could be a situation worth monitoring, as it would represent a fairly sizable shift in drone laws and regulations.
The world is increasingly viewing drones as a life-saving device with many potential uses. As the tech continues to grow, so do the inventive ways humans are seeking to use them for good.
There are incredible examples around the world of drone users coming to the rescue. As the tech grows, we hope to see more safety uses for drones. However, drone owners must always make sure they are following the law when operating drones, even for the good of others in order to avoid legal consequences.
Rescue missions and predator monitoring
Australia is spearheading dangerous surf drone rescues with their first rescue occurring just last month. Beachgoers alerted the lifeguard that two swimmers were struggling in ten-foot waves. A drone was quickly deployed to drop flotation devices to the swimmers, who survived without injury.
As a driving force of drone safety tech, Australia is also using drones to monitor ocean predators, such as sharks and jellyfish. They hope to keep swimmers safe and watch the environment – keeping both people and animals out of harm’s way in an unobtrusive manner.
Flymotion is a growing tech company that used drone operators to assist rescue missions during Hurricane Irma.
Emerging rescue tech
An Israeli artificial reality tech company just changed their gaming app into a new life-saving tool for disasters. The company, Edgybees, is releasing their First Response app to help rescuers battle through complex and quickly changing environments.
As we see trends in drone-usage leaning toward safety and life-saving, drone laws will undoubtedly be adapting as well.
It is critical for drone owners to stay abreast of changing California (and worldwide) drone laws. This can help you stay aware of illegal piloting behaviors in an emergency situation so that drones can keep others safe.