Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Too Bee a Drone

If we have named a technology after a male bee that dies shortly after fulfilling a very temporary male duty, does that suggest that this is a limited technology… or that it has simply been given the wrong name? Does Amazon really want to deliver your packages this way? Can it legally? Can ambulance drones rise above impenetrable traffic to save lives or are we just kidding ourselves? I mean more than dropping an emergency monitor, antidote or defibrillator? Literally picking up the patient?
“Though a drone in flight now is as rare as Sputnik-era satellites were in the late 1950s, in a decade or so it’s unlikely anyone will bother to look up at one. The FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] estimates that drone sales will grow from 2.5 million this year to 7 million in 2020. The overwhelming majority of drones now registered with the FAA — about 99 percent — are owned by people who fly them as a hobby.
“But there already are 10,602 registered commercial drones, and the potential for growth in their use is enormous. The FAA projects sale of drones intended for commercial use will triple from 600,000 this year to 2.7 million in 2020.
“‘Drones are essentially aerial robots,’ said Ed Felten, deputy chief technology officer in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. ‘These are much more than flying cameras. It’s still a nascent technology.’
“Drones will be used to monitor traffic, search for the missing and police suspects, help control the flow of movement at big construction and agricultural sites, maintain surveillance over closely guarded locations, collect video at athletic events and during breaking news events and provide door-step package delivery…
“The time when drones will be more common than airplanes, and perhaps birds, over America’s cities is closer than people realize, experts say. Already, the number of registered drones exceeds the number of airplanes. With the myriad of commercial uses for drones, the FAA, NASA and would-be fleet operators are hard at work on systems to keep them from crashing into one another.” The Washington Post, June 21st. Are these thousands and thousands of flying accidents waiting to happen or is there method in the FAA’s probable fairly lax regulation of this exploding trend?
Clearly, the FAA is only at the beginning of learning how to grapple with this technology, only applying basic rules until it learns more. But how quickly can it apply reason before tragedy redefines their mandate? Here are the basics of the new commercial rules:
“The Federal Aviation Administration’s new commercial drone rules allow a broad range of businesses to use drones under 55 pounds, but with several restrictions: The drones must be operated by a pilot who has passed a written test and is at least 16 years old. And drones can be flown only below 400 feet, during the day and at least five miles away from airports.
“The new F.A.A. rules do not necessarily preclude a hodgepodge of state and local drone regulations that have popped up in recent years. The administration sent a letter to states and cities saying they recommend everyone follow their lead. But it is only a recommendation.
“The F.A.A. stopped short of giving a green light to package delivery, a goal of Amazon and Google, which have pushed regulators to create rules that would allow them to transfer part of their ground-based delivery systems to the sky. The new guidelines mandate that a commercial drone operator must always have the machine within line of sight — a rule that, for now, makes delivering packages unfeasible… Still, the action brings the drone delivery vision one step closer to reality. And experts predict that in time federal regulators will get comfortable with the notion.” New York Times, June 21st.
Amazon is taking this space very seriously, suspicious of the potential of government over-regulation. As the Whitehouse and the FAA announce the above-noted initial regulatory structure based on 4,600 public comments, this huge online retailer has some additional suggestions: “Amazon… says the management systems that will keep drones from colliding — with each other, with airplanes and with people — need to be conceived faster than the FAA norm.
“‘We simply don’t have the option of going through the traditional kind of five year time span in which we come up with regulatory outcomes and the standards,’ said Sean Cassidy, director of strategic partnerships at Amazon Prime Air. ‘Actually, speed is our friend. [Unmanned traffic management (UTM)] is powerful force to help introduce coherence where there is going to be increasing chaos.’
“The FAA should set and enforce standards for commercial traffic, he says, but otherwise leave it to industry… ‘They’re not going to be in the business of actually managing or helping to supply those essential services for traffic,’ Cassidy said. ‘That is something that is absolutely best delegated to the industry and the innovators. Let them figure that solution out.’
“[University thinkers have also addressed the problem. For example,] MIT professor John Hansman agrees… ‘It’s not going to be a command and control system because we can’t afford it and we don’t need it,’ he said. ‘It really will be an information service and an information protocol. It’s really going to be an information exchange. The potential is that the UTM would become a common platform that people could sign onto.’… Cassidy said operators of commercial fleets must come up with standard interfaces and protocols recognized by other drone fleets.” The Post.  
Lots of flexibility relying heavily on private (vs public) infrastructure? The feds provide information, but the private sector makes the decisions based on that information? Interesting, but what happens when that infrastructure fails to prevent the mega-tragedy we all fear? And so far, we have a pretty minimal set of regulations.
Picture American big city streets back in the 1920s, when traffic jams began, without traffic signals… just cops often sent to a jam well after gridlock. We just may be approaching the same issue over our skies… and it would be nice to control the mess… before it becomes a very big mess.
I’m Peter Dekom, and what looks like an amusing problem right now becomes a dangerous logistical quagmire if the FAA doesn’t get it right pretty quickly.

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