The crash of a commercial drone operated by a television broadcaster during the downhill skiing run by World Cup champion Marcel Hirscher of Austria in Madonna di Campiglio, Italy, highlights the critical responsibility for businesses that operate drones. The crash in Italy took place directly behind Hirscher during the competition, landing only a few feet behind him. It could easily have hit him.
The particular drone in the accident was carrying a television camera covering the competition. While this drone was apparently being operated with the permission of the race organizers, it’s not the first drone crash happening during a sporting event. In fact, such crashes seem to be happening frequently and that’s one of the reasons the FAA rushed to create a drone registration system.
The new drone registration system is aimed at consumers and hobbyists, but the fact that the FAA expects nearly a million drones to enter the national airspace in 2015 will affect your business significantly.
There are two reasons for this. First, there’s a strong temptation to ignore the registration requirements for commercial drones and simply buy a consumer drone from a big-box store and fly the device. Second, the greatly expanded visibility of drones created by their sheer numbers means that any mistake in using a drone has the potential to have serious consequences.
Just to be clear, registration for commercial drones has been around for a while. Depending on the use, you may need to get clearance from the FAA to operate them, but these days such clearance is routine. In the next month or two, the FAA will create a set of rules for commercial use of drones that will eliminate much of the current red tape.
The current rules for commercial drone use are similar to those for personal or hobby use. The drone has to be operated within sight of the pilot at all times. It can’t fly above 400 feet above ground level; it can’t be used in declared no-fly zones; and it can’t be used near airports. One other requirement unique to commercial drones is that the pilot must hold an FAA pilot’s license.
The level of scrutiny on drone use is extreme. Already, the misuse of drones is in the news almost daily. Stories are showing up about drones getting in the way of commercial airliners and emergency first responders in addition to their appearance at sporting events.
Here in Washington, D.C., we’re seeing a near-constant stream of reports of drones invading the White House grounds, the National Mall and a number of national parks nearby. The fact that the entire city of Washington is a no-fly zone demonstrates the level of the problem.
While most of the drones appearing in news stories are operated by hobbyists and consumers, the public and to some extent the non-technology news media don’t know the difference.
2016 Dawning as Year of the Drone in the Business Sector
To them, a drone is a drone regardless of whether it’s being used by some moron thrill seeker or by your company to inspect a radio tower or a bridge. This means that it’s important to make sure that your company, and anyone your company contracts with, operates professionally and responsibly.
So here’s what you have to do. First, make sure that any drone you’re going to use for your business is properly registered with the FAA, that it has the required markings, that you’ve made sure that the missions you have planned are allowed by the FAA, and that you have applied for and received any waivers you require for your flights. Then, assuming your planned use of a drone passes muster, do some thinking before you start flying.
It’s important that you think about how you plan to carry out your drone mission with an eye toward safety and with consideration of the impact of the drone might have on those who observe it. For example, if you plan to inspect an antenna on top of an apartment building, perhaps it’s a good idea to alert the occupants of your plans so they won’t start calling the police when they see a drone outside their windows.
In addition, if you’re considering the use of a drone to cover an event that is likely to attract the public (which is probably why you’re doing it), then planning the flight so that the drone won’t pose a danger to spectators or event participants really is a must.
Even if the flight over an audience is allowed by the FAA (which it usually isn’t), the last thing you want is for it to fall on top of someone.
In addition, you need to make sure that the drone pilot can see the device during the entire mission. It’s not enough to depend on the video feed from the device for your operations to be safe.
The only way to avoid incidents is to be able to see around the entire drone, which is something the on-board camera can’t do. Also, keeping the device in sight during the flight is the only good way to ensure that you don’t lose the data link that’s controlling the drone.
Finally, if something does happen to your drone, then make sure you own up to it. It’s bad enough to be identified as the company that crashed its drone on national television, but it’s worse if you then appear to be covering it up.
By all measures, 2016 will be the year of the drone, but it’s up to you to determine whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing.