Drones rightly attract a healthy amount of attention when they put people in danger, whether that be by flying too close to commercial airliners or stopping firefighting crews from tending to blazes. But new research is adding some clarity to the reasons behind the rising number of drone incidents, suggesting that more often than not, technical glitches rather than piloting errors are to blame.
If you've ever tried your hand at piloting a drone, then you'll understand that things don't always go to plan. A slip of the joystick here, an overzealous acceleration there, things can come unstuck pretty quickly and the learning curve can be unforgiving. The US government has introduced a smartphone app, an awareness campaign and mandatory registration for these reasons: to keep rookie pilots both aware of the dangers and accountable for any missteps.
While it far from absolves us humans of blame, a new study carried out by researchers at Australia's RMIT University and Edith Cowan University has indicated that more often than not, technical problems may actually be the cause of drone accidents. The team examined 150 reported civil incidents between 2006 and 2016, and found that malfunctions were the cause for 64 percent. The research found that in most of these cases, a breakdown in the communication links between the operator and drone was the reason for the incident.
Really, this is neither good news nor bad news for the drone industry as accidents are accidents, whether caused by humans or failing technologies. Rather, the study emphasizes the need for more robust communications systems for drones. The researchers believe this is an area where drones could follow the lead of larger aircraft and benefit from more regulatory oversight.
"Large transport category aircraft, such as those from a Boeing or Airbus, are required to have triple redundant systems for their communications," says Dr Graham Wild from RMIT's School of Engineering. "But drones don't and some of the improvements that have reduced the risks in those aircraft could also be used to improve the safety of drones."
Recently announced drone laws in the US allow any drone under 25 kg (55 lb) to be flown commercially without any form of airworthiness check, so long as the operator has a remote pilot certificate. In the view of the researchers, this allows too much margin for error.
"Drones are being used for a wide range of tasks now and there are a lot of day-to-day activities that people want to use them for, delivering pizzas and packages, taking photos, geosurveying, firefighting, and search and rescue," says Wild. "It's essential that our safety regulations keep up with this rapidly-growing industry."