The drone business has been flying high for the last few years, especially as they became popular consumer devices as regulatory and technological frameworks continue to take shape for greater implementation into the National Airspace (NAS). Much has also been written though about the possibilities of drones igniting the next wave of innovation for enterprise specific applications in precision agriculture, oil and gas, construction, asset monitoring and delivery, and mining. However, it’s clear that the military sector will continue to lead all other sectors in drone spending for the foreseeable future, thanks to worldwide demand of this technology.
But perhaps the most intriguing applications for drones in the coming years are those related to safety – public safety, that is. State and local governments are certainly beginning to take their SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analyses of implementing drone technologies for their own emergency response efforts. Why just two weeks ago, local officials around Japan were looking at drones to help “beef up” their disaster response programs, in the event of a major disaster such as an earthquake.
Even last week the North Carolina Department of Transportation’s Division of Aviation collaborated with close to 50 state and local government agencies and researchers for a workshop about the use of drones in crisis situations. North Carolina is also looking at applications for drones for monitoring rockslides along Interstate 40 at the Tennessee border (a common headache for DOT officials). However, one of the critical discussion points during the workshop was looking at ways to ensure private owners of drones (with or without the best of intentions) don’t interfere with or further complicate emergency response efforts.
Are Drones Friend or Foe?
According to the FAA’s newest estimates, we can expect about 7 million drones to ship to the U.S. by 2020. Which also means, our skies are likely to become much more crowded with not just private consumer devices, but possibly many more commercial devices as well. This is where an early examination of the cost/benefit analysis of drones used in emergency response support may prove to be helpful.
By several accounts already reported, numerous police departments, local and regional government agencies, fire departments, Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT) and even lifeguards are already adopting and testing drone technologies in the event of an emergency response situation. By no means do we expect that trend to discontinue. However, it is also important to get a handle of what the negative outcomes could be so that technology companies like FreeWave can help address these issues now through technical guidance, tech innovation and considerations for implementation into the NAS.
Based on what we’ve gathered so far, by far the biggest concerns for drones being used in emergency response is when it interferes with corresponding aviation efforts. There are numerous accounts of private drone pilots causing challenges for search and rescue and firefighting efforts. Just yesterday the Texas A&M Forest Service was reported to have asked its local residents to not fly drones near the wildfires they are trying to battle near college station. Drones were said to have caused a serious safety hazard for firefighters and halted the assistance of other firefighting aircraft.
Another instance was in Sharp Park in Pacifica near San Francisco when search and rescue crews were delayed in their rescue mission when a drone flew much too close to the helicopter that was trying to save someone who had fallen off of a cliff.
The point here is that while many of the newly born issues from drone flights are based on human oversight or error. It shines a light on just how new this new technology really is (for consumers and enterprises) and how much there still is to learn. We expect to see much more regulation get handed down in the coming years (on a local, state and federal level) to help curb errant drone usage in our increasingly crowded airspace. Furthermore, sense and avoid tactics between disparate aircraft will become even more paramount with each new drone flight.
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