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Flying Drones in all the wrong places

I am a strong supporter of having drones fly for good commercial businesses. See my article on EDN Drone design: An electronics designer’s point of view Part one.

However, the recent reports of at least 650 drone sightings to date by airline pilots in the vicinity of airports as compared to 238 in all of 2014 has me worried.

When an expert pilot like Captain Chesley Sullenberger or “Sulley” as we called him in NY, now a safety consultant for the FAA, goes on the record saying that a drone “could do great damage and could be catastrophic” to an aircraft landing at 150 to 200 mph, then I listen—especially as a fairly frequent flyer that I am.

It’s time the FAA does something quickly, without banning drones commercially, which will not help at all but will hurt sorely needed industry growth in this country. The FAA only has weak rules, almost impossible to enforce.

Drones are good for industry and the economy. It's people who can use them for the wrong reasons. We need to address the operator, not the technology!

Drones are good for industry and the economy. It’s people who can use them for the wrong reasons. We need to address the operator, not the technology!

It’s time that technology steps in. Some ideas might be the FAA setting and enforcing “no-fly” zones using technology that can disable the remote control signal, especially near airports and in the flight path. I’m thinking something like 5G is planning with electronically steerable antennas and sensors that can detect and lock onto a remote control (R/C) signal like a fighter jet missile on a “bogey”. This could be costly, of course, but how about a tax on any commercial companies that use drones for business?

Some suggest that drones be equipped with programming that protects the zones, but right after we do that, an article will appear on the internet showing how to disable that.

What do you think? We need EEs to step up to the plate and weigh in to keep our skies safe.

11 comments on “Flying Drones in all the wrong places

  1. eafpres
    August 16, 2015

    Hi Steve–thank you for the provocative post.  I agree with you that technology must engage and find solutions that support both commerce and safety in non-draconian ways.

    Around airports, it would be feasible, instead of beam steering, to put up receiver antennas connected to “sniffer” electronics that would sound an alarm and tell authorities nearly exactly where the drone is being operated.  A quick resonse team could go get them.  I imagine airports in this post 9/11 era have something resembling quick response teams anyway.

    The system could use antenna and receivers for all the known bands, and could be designed to have, say, a 60 degree 3 dB beam width which would translate into abour 9 dB of gain.  This allows you to position the next adjacent antennas a reasonable distance away and have a high probabiity of detection.

    Makers of GPS receivers could come to the rescue as well. They know how to take a small signal (-160 dB) and use it for meaningful applications.

  2. Steve Taranovich
    August 16, 2015

    @eafpres1—Thanks for those thought-provoking ideas. There is so much we could do with easily obtained existing technology like this that can be modified by EEs!

  3. cookiejar
    August 19, 2015

    Assuming that collisions with aircraft are the problem, then there is a simple solution already available.  The FAA frangible spec. ensures that an object is of a low enough density so that it can collide with an aircraft without causing major damage. 

    One product to which the frangible spec is applied are weather balloons, which through the years have included various sensors,  aneroid barometer, electric motor, radio transmitter and of course a battery.  All the components are most interesting from a design standpoint.  The design is such that when the balloon bursts and the package falls, slowed by a parachute, it also minimizes damage to anything it strikes.  Weather balloons have been around for decades, with an excellent safety record.

    I would argue that design restrictions should also apply to drones in order to minimize damage to people and property.  Having high speed blades surrounding the drone without any protection may be a cash cow for replacement blades but can also do serious damage to people and property.  At the very least there should be a cowling around each blade or a cage similar to a household fan.  We wouldn't want an unguarded spinning fan blade sitting around in the house.  Why are 4 unprotected spinning blades flying around acceptable?

  4. cookiejar
    August 19, 2015

    Picking up the remote control signal for drones wouldn't address those drones that operate from a programmed route using GPS, which don't need a remote control signal.

  5. eafpres
    August 19, 2015

    Hi Cookiejar–At this time in the US, I would say that the makers and operators of those larger dones are following the rules.  The  issue sems to be more with what should be called radio controlled (RC) aircraft but are now known by the media and most people as drones.  The issue is they are violating one or more rules in the cases in the media.   There have been regulations for RC aircraft for a long time.  The advent of better electronics, smaller/better/lighter cameras, better batteries, and the advent of quad copter designs that are exremely easy to opperate, has created a new set of problems.

    These problems include that the purchaser isn't required to certify they are aware of FAA regulations,that many operators choose to ignore the regulations anyway, and there isn't a hope that there will ever be enough enforcement to stop it.  The solutions are not likely to come from more regulations.  I fear it will become like gun laws–adding layer on layer none of which stops criminals and scofflaws, who by defintion will ignore most laws.

  6. Steve Taranovich
    August 19, 2015

    @cookiejar—Excellent comments—I like the idea of a balloon or baloon-like devices as part of the possible solution.

  7. Steve Taranovich
    August 19, 2015

    @eafpres1—There are so many dilemmas, but technology can provide solutions. Government will be involved and that can help enforce solutions as well as cause delays and restrictions.

  8. eafpres
    August 19, 2015

    Hi Steve–your point is very good.  Technology can take issues in directions laws cannot.  So finding ways to make misuse ineffective by embedding technology, for instance, can go a long way.  

    For the drone problem we could consider built in altitude control (effective for, say, 90% of users), built in some kind of kill switch, etc.

    More complex could be built in keep-out maps to exclude from all controlled airspace (again, effective for, say 90% of users).

    For the 10% who are breaking laws on purpose, enforcement can reduce that.  

    Another solution for the residual hard core criminal uses could be mircro-scale Patriot missle banks.

  9. Victor Lorenzo
    August 25, 2015

    Hi All, I agree with you in many aspects.

    Technology can put a series of hardcoded/hardwired limits to components and preassembled avionic components and law and regulations can put the legal mechanisms for discouraging people from doing things the wrong way. But with today's technology a motivated personne with a comprehensive knowledge can build a drone (or any other type of UAV) with capabilities to fly autonomously and almost silently for reasonably long time and distance.

    There are several, even open source, projects providing plenty of information on how to achieve that.

    I think the risk at airports is still minimal, and higher and increasing in urban areas. Here is a real example in Barcelone, a “toy” drone used (presummably) by a company for filming falls over several people. (http://www.ara.cat/viacatalana/Via-Catalana-Sagrada-Familia-assistents_3_994130598.html)

  10. eafpres
    August 27, 2015

    I have already mentioned that most of what is in the news aren't drones in the real sense.  Most military drones are not either.  Cruise missles fit the description; Predator's do not.

    Most of what is talked about are radio-controlled aircraft.   The shame is that when it relatively challenging to fly RC aircraft it was limited to dedicated hobbyists.  Most of those I've encountered, including my younger brother, fly by the rules.  Now we have all these toys that anybody can fly and everyone is up in arms.

  11. Steve Taranovich
    August 28, 2015

    Check out my EDN article http://www.edn.com/design/analog/4429404/Drone-design–An-electronics-designer-s-point-of-view-Part-one

    Part two is coming soon including autonomous capabilities and swarms of drones.

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