formerly "The View From Up Here"

Formerly titled "The View From Up Here" this column began in the Liberty Gazette June 26, 2007.

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May 1, 2012 UAVs

The Liberty Gazette
May 1, 2012
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Mike: What does “drone” mean to you? What it means to a beekeeper differs from its meaning to a pilot. To a pilot it is an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), and the present administration has mandated the FAA release more of these aircraft into the National Airspace System for law enforcement, military and commercial purposes over the next few years; as many as 30,000. These little boogers (actually varying in size, but as little as four pounds) can be programmed to fly a specific route, pattern, or they can be flown from a remote console.

When asked to comment on sharing the airspace with UAVs pilots have expressed concerns first on the grounds of safety and second on right-of-way and legal restrictions imposed on real pilots as a so-called way to deal with the safety issue. Pilots will tell you that theoretically we don’t mind sharing the airspace, but only as long as the UAVs have some means of “seeing” and avoiding human-piloted airplanes better than pilots can, with no additional restrictions. But that scenario doesn’t exist. Imagine remotely controlled vehicles, too small for you to see before a collision, entering your airspace without equal or even adequate ability to see you. Scary, isn’t it?

Smaller UAVs do not carry sophisticated equipment to see and avoid automatically and independently of their remotely based “pilots.” They are extremely hard to see and avoid (after all, they’re built to be stealth). And, scary as it is, some of the drone operators (seated firmly on the ground)are not even licensed pilots. What’s more, they’re more focused on buildings, borders, fences, and activities on the ground, displayed on a small screen.

Linda: Reality is, they see life through a soda straw with limited situational awareness, poor visibility, and lacking maneuverability; shortfalls that make significant upgrades necessary for operating in the National Airspace System. How many UAV operators would be able to place an airplane in the Hudson River with no loss of life? They are not like real pilots, constantly in heads-up mode, scanning their surrounding for other real airplanes, controls within reach for immediate correction. What if the “kid at the console” has zipped out for a Coke or some other human moment? The kid's screen just goes blank, while the human pilot must get himself and his aircraft back to the ground in one piece. The drone doesn't care if things go wrong.

This is a big issue because public safety will be affected. The greatest danger may be if the UAV “goes stupid”, meaning the communications between the ground and the UAV are severed or interrupted. There may be nothing the operator can do to restore the signal once it is lost and eventually crashes. When communication is lost with the UAV it goes into a pre-programmed escape, not controlled by a human.

Privacy rights bring lots of questions too. If the drone sees your kid running a stop sign, will you hear about it? Will USDA use drones to see if you’re buying raw milk? What if someone uses a drone to spook your cattle or passes over your chicken shed and frightens all the birds that then stampede and smother each other? Can you shoot down a drone that flies over your deer blind? Can you use one to lure deer to your blind? Lots of questions, and for now, inadequate, dangerous answers.

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