WASHINGTON (USA TODAY) – Drones represent revolutionary changes in aviation, but they also pose serious safety questions as they prepare to share the sky with airliners, according to a National Research Council report released Thursday.
The 92-page report comes as drone advocates urge faster Federal Aviation Administration approval of commercial uses, from aerial scenes in movies such as The Wolf of Wall Street to Amazon's experiments with delivering items sold on its website.
But the report listed several barriers to wider use of drones that are eagerly anticipated for jobs deemed too dangerous or boring for people:
• Technology: engineering drones to cope with changing conditions that exist in crowded airspace, such as sensing its position in relation to other aircraft, needing more wireless communications and protecting against hijacking by software.
• Regulation: certifying aircraft and remote pilots as safe, despite differences in standards for aircraft with passengers and crew aboard.
• Social issues: ensuring public concerns about safety and privacy are resolved.
"There is little doubt that over the long run the potential benefits of advanced unmanned aircraft and other increasingly autonomous systems to civil aviation will indeed be great, but there should be equally little doubt that getting there while maintaining the safety and efficiency of the nation's civil aviation system will be no easy matter," said John-Paul Clarke, an associate professor of aerospace engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology who co-chaired the committee that wrote the report.
Drone development is accelerating, according to the report, prompted by the promise of a range of applications, such as dusting crops, monitoring traffic or executing dangerous missions such as fighting forest fires.
The industry is projected to grow to 7,500 drones within five years after the FAA settles on regulations. An industry group called the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International estimates the industry will create 100,000 jobs and generate $82 billion in economic activity a decade after drones start sharing the sky.
Michael Toscano, CEO of the industry group, listed key elements of drone rules during a speech May 30 at the Aero Club in Washington. The rules should govern training for operators, making sure aircraft are built safely, fly safely, collect data about how drones work and hold operators accountable by having a computer chip aboard each drone, he said.
The National Research Council report spanned drones from those piloted remotely to those that could operate almost without human intervention through the Global Positioning System and developing sensors. Amazon, for example, announced in December it is testing delivery of goods in as little as 30 minutes by drones with multiple rotors, while acknowledging the prospect will take a "number of years" for development.
Increasingly autonomous "systems have the potential to improve safety and reliability, reduce costs and enable new missions," the report said. However, deploying increasingly autonomous drones "is not without risk," the report said.
But FAA officials and industry advocates anticipate remote pilots for the foreseeable future. The FAA is developing rules for drones to share the skies with passenger planes under a congressional deadline of September 2015. But rules for smaller drones weighing up to 55 pounds are expected later this year.
In addition, the FAA is considering expediting approval of commercial uses for moviemaking, agriculture and inspections of pipelines and flare stacks. But no time frame has been announced.
Seven moviemaking companies have applied to FAA for permission to use drones flying less than 400 feet in closely planned scenes on sets.
The National Research Council paper offered several suggestions for integrating drones into the national airspace. For instance, operators should simulate how drones will share the skies with computer models before testing actual drones.
"The barriers we identify and the research agenda we propose to overcome them is a vital next step as we venture into this new era of flight," said committee co-chair John Lauber, a consultant and former senior vice president and chief product safety officer at Airbus.