8 min read

The growing urgency to improve drone safety

Joanna Wieczorek

Aviation Digital Transformation Expert

In the matter of a few years, society’s imagination about drones has evolved considerably. From delivering parcels to helping farmers and miners with dangerous and tedious tasks to providing data for highway and other infrastructure projects, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have a much more extensive application than when they were first conceived for esoteric military purposes. The Polish company Dron House has identified at least 87 commercial uses for drones in their catalog.

But as it turns out, pilot-less aircraft can not only do great things for society and industry; they’re also just fun to operate. As of last January, there were more than 1 million drone operators just in the United States (including close to 900,000 ‘hobbyists’). With so many industrial and commercial applications as well as widespread recreational use, the number of drones soaring through the skies will only grow from here.

Considering the chaos that drones have recently caused at some of the busiest airports in the world as well as the potential for drone technology to be used improperly, the need to ensure drones are flown safely is one of ever-escalating consequences.

Assessing the risks of flying a drone

The most obvious risk associated with flying a drone is that it can interfere with another aircraft,  particularly those carrying passengers. Whereas before, pilots had to be aware of birds interrupting their path of flight — and at times, to respond miraculously — now there are mechanical birds (drones) that can be just as tricky to detect and cause far more dangerous situations. A cracked winglet, a disrupted engine, a punctured body: Each of these unthinkable scenarios is possible when a drone flies too close to an airplane to bring about an accident. 

The other primary risk is perhaps even more unsettling: It’s standard for drones to be equipped with some of the most advanced high-definition cameras on the market. In fact, this is one of the reasons UAVs have such broad commercial application. But it’s also why drone operators are susceptible to catalog data and images they’re not authorized to collect. This is in violation of GDPR, which restricts the gathering of personal identifiable information, including aerial images of people with geographic reference points. If a drone operator (especially from a large commercial enterprise) is not aware of the data that they are collecting, it’s much easier for the data to end up in the wrong hands and be abused.

Smart solutions in reach

In order to foster better drone safety, it’s up to both regulators and ethical enterprises to take initiative. There are already a few viable solutions to the risks drones present, both from an aerial safety as well as a digital responsibility prospective.

In terms of aerial safety, there are tools that can provide better information about the drones populating the nearby airspace. Drone Radar is one such tool developed in Poland by Pawel Korzec (also GA pilot). The tool merges data from both manned airplanes as well as UAVs onto a single platform so that those monitoring the skies can see everything together. Drone Radar also allows drone operators to see in real time all of the drones that are flying in their area. The application has an intuitive color-code system (red, yellow, green) that shows UAV users how safe it is to fly. This is the kind of tool that could be easily implemented as an effective solution for drone safety on the enterprise scale.

Regarding legal data practices when it comes to drones, the EU drafted special guidelines that originated in a discussion between European aviation authorities and the data protection authority. It will be the responsibility of every drone operator to use UAVs according to these standards. As with the aerial collision problem, one of the French multinational companies is also working on developing a solution for users to not collect and store sensitive data unwittingly. It definitely has potential to be implemented on an enterprise scale in the future.

As UAV usage continues to expand, it’s going to become more and more important to continuously develop guidelines for the safe operation of drones. Perhaps even more important is for the operators of drones to follow established guidelines. By putting safety first, further organic development of creative and impactful ways drones can be used will be far more viable.

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