The near-collision of plane with a drone earlier this spring brings new attention to the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) plan to update its regulations about unmanned aviation systems (UAS). And two major companies are working together on a rotorcraft expected to have multiple uses.
Here’s a roundup of recent drone news.
Near-tragedy Remains a Mystery
Officials recently revealed that a drone nearly crashed into an U.S. Airways jet on March 22, 2014 over Tallahassee, Fla. The owner/operator of the camouflaged drone has not yet been identified, but he or she could face penalties.
Jim Williams, head of the FAA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems office, discussed the potential dangers of drones at the Small Unmanned Systems Business Expo.
“The airline pilot said that the UAS was so close to his jet that he was sure he had collided with it,” Williams says. “Thankfully, inspection of the airliner after landing found no damage.”
However, some question whether the drone in question was of commercial or hobbyist nature. Motherboard writes that it is not unheard of for a military UAS to deviate from its flight path, which recently happened in Florida.
Commercial use of drones remains against FAA regulations, and even those for academic/research use are restricted to flying below 400 feet, with advance notice to air-traffic officials, and are still subject to FAA rules.
“The risk for a small (drone) to be ingested into a passenger airline engine is very real,” Williams says. “The results could be catastrophic.”
According to Bloomberg News, “there have been at at least six other incidents since September 2011 in which pilots have reported close calls with what they believed were small unmanned aircraft, according to NASA?s Aviation Safety Reporting System, which logs safety issues.”
The rotorcraft system, which is based on Yamaha’s RMax agricultural helicopter, will be part of Northrop Grumman’s Bat line of small unmanned aircraft systems that debuted in 2009 after the company acquired the KillerBee blended wing UAV line from Swift Engineering.
Here’s video of an R-Bat test flight:
Drones Tested in Alaska
The drone test site in North Dakota might have been the first to be approved by the FAA, but the first actual test flights occurred at the Robert G. White Large Animal Research Station, which is near the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
“The birds were noisier than the Aeryon Scout as the mini quadcopter whirred over the caribou lounging in the field,” the university reports. “The Scout climbed to 200 feet as a crowd of about 50 people silently watched its inaugural flight under the gray overcast sky at Fairbanks, Alaska.”
The North Dakota Department of Commerce plans to use a drone from another Canada-based company, the Draganflyer X4-ES quadcopter, later in May 2014 in its own approved test flights. In North Dakota, where farms can be twice the size of Manhattan, agriculture is an obvious application for drones, as inspecting huge fields is a constant challenge.
NPR reports that some farmers in the state already are purchasing drones to check on damage, disease and general crop conditions. They hope to enhance data collection and analysis and thereby use chemicals more judiciously.
Aeryon Scout test flight at the Robert G. White Large Animal Research Station. (Photo: University of Alaska Fairbanks)