Drones Becoming Easier to Fly, but Safety, Privacy Issues Leave Their Everyday Use Uncertain
To use these devices, the Geophysical Institute must get special permission from the Federal Aviation Administration as an exception to its current aviation rules. It is a process Bailey said she knows well that involves getting approval well in advance of a flight and then follow-up communication with the Anchorage FAA office two days and then 30 minutes before flight time.
The regulation that makes drones the exception instead of the rule might soon change. In its budget for the FAA in February, Congress directed the FAA to pick six test sites for unmanned aerial vehicles around the country that will be used to test regulations for their use.
Choosing the sites has taken longer than expected, but the FAA’s test sites likely will be decided by the end of the year, said Alaska Sen. Mark Begich, who has been a cheerleader for the prospect of putting one of the test sites in Alaska, possibly using space left by the Air Force at Eielson Air Force Base.
Concerns about drones spying on Americans have delayed work on creating the six test sites, but Begich said privacy concerns are a good reason for why Alaska should be one of the states where the regulations are decided.
Besides the privacy concerns, there are technological ones.
Flying a drone is nothing like flying a plane, not only because drones are unmanned but also because they are more autonomous. Rather than being constantly steered, a drone is given a set of parameters then flies within them.
The instrument the drone is carrying can require more human attention than keeping the vehicle on course, Bailey said.
“You fly the camera with a joystick. You fly the airplane with a stylus on a screen,” she said. “You watch it to make sure it’s behaving properly, but you’re not flying it through that grid. It just does it automatically.”
When operating a drone within sight, operators usually work with a second person, a spotter, to keep an eye on the drone. Outside sight, the drones use radar to avoid other airborne objects.
Despite the enormous difference between manned and unmanned aircraft, setting rules to allow drones has the formal blessings of the existing aviation community, said Heidi Williams, vice president of air traffic services and modernization at the national Maryland-based Airplane Owners and Pilots Association.
“What we don’t want to continue to see is the trend that we’ve seen to date, which is segregation,” she said. “Airspace is never as infinite as perhaps we’d like to believe, and it’s really important that as we introduce new aircraft to the airspace that they co-exist with manned operations and do so safely.”
Contact Fairbanks Daily News-Miner staff writer Sam Friedman at 907-459-7545.