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The Drone Industry: Thoughts From an Outsider

New pilots need education.
The Drone Industry: Thoughts From an Outsider
Image credit: Morten Falch Sortland | Getty Images
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I’ve always loved technology and recently became one of the growing number of Americans to buy a drone. Like many drone operators, I marvel at the current commercial and recreational applications as well as the potential for the future. The FAA estimates there are 1.9 million drones used by hobbyists in the U.S. today. By 2020, this number is expected to rise to 4.3 million, showing the huge growth potential for this fledgling industry.

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But before this industry expands further, there are a few very valid concerns we need to address. Even as a newcomer, I can immediately recognize the responsibility drone operators need in regards to safety and privacy. As unmanned aerial vehicles become ubiquitous, the technology will move faster than the laws meant to regulate the industry. Thus, it’s crucial that the drone industry is proactive at self-regulation. This includes collaboration between manufacturers to create an industry standards board to oversee the implementation of enhanced safety software, as well as the education for drone operators, and the public, about drone usage.

This may create more obstacles for the industry’s short term profits, but its long-range sustainability will be given the chance to flourish when the public sees drones as a beneficial tool, not some snooping eye in the sky.

We’ve all heard the stories of drones spying on sunbathing women. As cliché as it is, this happened to my wife while she was on our “private” deck and a drone suddenly appeared above her. While Americans recognize the benefits of drones, especially when used for search and rescue purposes or safety inspection, privacy infringement concerns remain due to misuse of the technology.

The government is trying to keep pace. There are state laws in place that outlaw using a drone to capture images of either a nude or partially nude person. But the keywording in these laws is “capturing images” because states can’t dictate where drones can legally fly. These flight path regulations are determined by the FAA, which doesn’t deal with privacy issues, only airborne safety.

These sets of guidelines and state laws are inconsistent across the country and lack enforcement, which opens the door for non-compliance. With these challenges comes opportunity. If the drone industry can be proactive by rolling out systems that protect public privacy and safety, it can avoid public backlash as widespread drone usage increases.

Related: UPS Tests Drone-Based Package Deliveries

To keep hobbyist and commercial drones seen as a positive tool, the industry needs to add software that makes it readily apparent when a drone is filming. This could include loud beeps every 10 seconds while recording or every time a drone takes a photo, as well as including bright flashing lights to make it more visible to anyone on the ground. While this does not address government or law enforcement surveillance, it’s a step in the right direction for privacy protection in the hobbyist and commercial markets.

While peeping on women dominates the headlines, there is also the potential for much more serious safety concerns. Manufacturers have taken some initiative on protecting public safety by installing collision avoidance algorithms. But the current technology only works if the drone is flying forward, not while ascending, or flying sideways or backwards. Perfecting this safety system will help alleviate concerns regarding collisions with aircraft, people, powerlines and other drones.

Geofencing software is also currently available in most high-end consumer drones to limit flying in restricted airspace. DJI, the market leader in the recreational sector, has led the charge with this technology, due in large part to a DJI drone crashing on the White House lawn in 2015. By perfecting this technology and making it ubiquitous across all models, the industry can keep critical airspace uncrowded and decrease public safety concerns.  

One other major challenge we face is getting drone pilots, young and old, to think and act like commercial airline pilots. These pilots follow safety procedures that have been honed over the past 100 years, including a keen understanding of how human factors, technological limitations and safety systems are interrelated. While the FAA does require drone operators to pass a series of exams for commercial use, the same is not required for hobbyists.

The lack of proper training leads to major safety concerns. If any teenager in America (and beyond) can get a drone for Christmas or their birthday, what systems are in place to ensure they use it safely? I’m not trying to suggest that every single drone owner needs to take extensive FAA courses in order to fly. But we do need a standardized training course of high-level safety points as well as a primer on local, state and federal laws.

Related: Drone Accidents: Not Your Fault?

The sky is the limit for the growth of the drone industry. The issues that could lead to public backlash or government intervention are known. Now it’s up to us as pilots -- and the industry as a whole -- to prevent this from happening by self-regulating while the government plays catchup.

With improved hardware and software that’s pervasive across different manufacturers and models, we can ease privacy and safety concerns. Meanwhile, standardizing basic education will help bring a sense of professionalism and accountability to all new pilots. This is not something we do soon, this is something we need to do now to ensure this transformative technology continues to grow and improve virtually every aspect of our work and lives.
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