Chris Anderson, co-founder and CEO of 3D Robotics, continues to be candid about the state of the drone industry. He recently said the rise in “mass jackassery” is hurting the industry. Now he’s saying the industry has to do something before government does, and he shares a few ideas to get things started.
Anderson says a major problem is that drones are so easy to use, and he blames the industry for that. “The problem is that along with taking training out of the process of flying a drone, we inadvertently also took out the education process of learning about safe and responsible flight. Sure, we drone manufacturers include all sorts of warning and advisories in our instructions manual (which people don’t read) and our apps (which they swipe past), and companies such as DJI and my own 3DR include basic “geofencing” restrictions to try to keep operators below 400 feet and within “visual line of sight”. But it’s not enough.”
In an essay for Hackaday, Anderson outlines his plan on how to curtail reckless flying. Here are some of the highlights:
Drones can be smarter, Anderson writes, as they are connected to the cloud via the operator’s phone. The manufacturer’s app on the phone, when opened, can check online for updated flights rules in your area. Here’s how it works:
The app sends four data fields to a cloud service: Who (operator identifier), What (aircraft identifier), Where (GPS and altitude position) and When (either right now or a scheduled time in the case of autonomous missions). The cloud service then returns a “red light” (flight not allowed), a “green light” (flight allowed, with basic restrictions such as a 400 feet altitude ceiling), or “yellow light” (additional restrictions or warnings, which can be explained to the operator in context and at the point of use).
Anderson admits the aforementioned system is “only as good as the data it uses, which is still pretty patchy worldwide, and the ways that the manufacturers implement those restrictions.” But he suggests extending the international air traffic control system to millions of aircraft.
His next idea is to have drones essentially self-regulate the airways, which he calls peer-to-peer air traffic control, by flying in WiFi-enabled environments. He says what WiFi did for the telecoms industry, autonomous, cloud-connected drones can do to the aerospace industry.
That “open spectrum” sandbox that the FCC created also created a massive new industry around WiFi. It put wireless in the hands of everyone and routed around the previous monopoly owners of the spectrum, cellphone carriers and media companies. The rest was history.
We can do the same thing with drones. Let’s create an innovation “sandbox” with de minimus regulatory barriers for small UAVs flying within very constrained environments. The parameters of the sandbox could be almost anything, as long as they’re clear, but it should be kinetic energy and range based (a limit of 2kg and 20m/s at 100m altitude and 1,000m range within visual line of sight would be a good starting point).
As in the case of open spectrum, in relatively low risk applications, such as micro-drones, technology can be allowed to “self-deconflict the airspace” without the need for monopoly exclusions such as exclusive licences or regulatory permits. How? By letting the drones report their position using the same cellphone networks they used to get permission to fly in the first place. The FAA already has a standard for this, called ADS-B, which is based on transponders in each aircraft reporting their position. But those transponders are expensive and unnecessary for small drones, which already know their position and are connected to the cloud. Instead, they can use “virtual ADS-B” to report their position via their cell network connections, and that data can be injected into the same cloud data services they used to check if their flight was safe in the first place.
Anderson points out that “it’s devilishly hard to understand the patchwork quilt of federal, state and local regulations and guidelines,” and that “most drone operators who get in trouble aren’t malicious and may not even know that what they’re doing is irresponsible or even illegal.” He also says drones can be smart enough where operators don’t need to be aware of the rules.
Agreed, but another major problem is accountability, which Anderson touches upon with his “operator identifier” data point. Take, for example, Nigel Wilson, who yesterday became the first person in the UK to be convicted of “drone offences” for repeatedly flying drones over crowded soccer stadiums and tourist attractions. The only reason he was caught was because he filmed those flights and uploaded the footage to YouTube. Would he have been caught otherwise? Maybe, maybe not. His drones have no identifier on them, so even if he crashed during one of the flights there was no way to trace that drone back to him.
Now, Wilson has been banned from buying and/or flying drones for two years, but how can authorities really keep tabs on him? Is his name on some secret no-drone database? And Wilson could simply have a friend buy or lend him a drone. But, again, if there was some way to identify who’s drone it is in the event of a crash or a flight in a no-fly zone, maybe that friend would be a little more hesitant to help Wilson out.
Technology is never perfect, and any safe flight system for drones will also have it shortcomings. But whether you think more regulation or more education is the answer to stop the “mass jackassery,” Anderson stepping up to the plate and offering up potential solutions is a great start.