As the number of small drones flying dangerously close to manned aircraft has soared dramatically this year, Wright State University Research Institute announced Thursday it will roll out a website and smart phone app to make ever more crowded skies safer.
Drone operators would voluntarily upload flight route or areas to a smart phone app or online at www.GoFlyZone.org, which would alert users to any conflicts with restricted flight areas or other users who have filed flight plans within the same system, said Bruce Preiss, a WSRI lead research engineer.
“The power of this app is the more people we get using it, the better it’s going to be,” he said. “If everyone’s not using it, it’s going to be weak.”
Testing of the software continues, but developers have targeted the website and mobile phone app to be operational within three months, he said. The online flight plan recorder would start in Ohio, with the goal to expand throughout the country.
To decrease the chance of collisions, WRSI officials hope pilots of medical helicopters and crop dusters voluntarily log into the system to boost safety at the lower altitudes drones typically fly. Federal rules, in general, restrict users flying small unmanned aerial vehicles to fly below 400 feet and avoid flying within five miles of airports.
Drone hobbyists are not regulated or controlled like pilots, however.
The technology fix arrives as a record number of pilots peering out of the cockpit have spotted drones this year, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. A recently reached milestone of more than 1,000 businesses have FAA approval to fly drones commercially and the number of hobbyists flying recreationally has reached into the hundreds of thousands, according to estimates.
All those drones have created the potential for collisions in the sky. Pilots reported more than 650 sightings of unmanned aircraft by Aug. 9 of this year compared to 238 sightings all of last year, the FAA reported.
Near mid-air collisions
The Washington Post, which obtained FAA reports the agency reportedly had kept under wraps, published an online story Thursday that found drones have flown within 100 feet or less of commercial airliners, military jets and private planes, often at higher altitudes than small UAVs are permitted to fly. On Sunday alone, The Post reported, 12 episodes were recorded across the nation. In one case, a pilot observed a drone flying at 1,500 feet over restricted airspace in Washington, D.C., causing fighter jets to launch, The Post said.
It found no case of a collision, however, and some reports mistakenly pointed to drones when another cause was found.
A year ago, CareFlight helicopter transporting a patient to Miami Valley Hospital in Dayton was forced to circle for nine minutes because a drone entered the airspace near the hospital.
Today, Preiss estimated roughly 500,000 to 750,000 users fly small drones in the United States.
“There are just too many users out in the nation right now to have them go ahead and send all their data to our air traffic controllers,” he said.”There’s no way FAA air traffic controllers can track all that and in most cases they don’t need to track that. … The drone community itself needs to track all this because there are problems” with drones that conflict with the flight paths of medical helicopter and crop duster flights “that could cause all sorts of problems.”
The FAA can enforce penalties against people who fly drones in a way that endangers public safety or violates federal rules, said Elizabeth Cory, an FAA agency spokeswoman in Chicago. The agency has worked with law enforcement authorities to identify “unsafe and unauthorized” drone operations, she indicated.
“Safety is the FAA’s top priority and we take very seriously any incident that poses a hazard to manned aircraft or people on the ground,” she wrote in an email Thursday.
The FAA was under a congressional mandate to integrate small drones into civilian airspace by next month, but it’s receiving public comments on the proposed rules. Final rules were expected within a year, Cory said.
Bruce Wynne, Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International president and chief executive officer, said in a recent statement the “proliferation of irresponsible UAS flights underscores the need for the FAA to finalize its small UAS rules and more aggressively enforce existing regulations.”
WSRI employees will launch a business spin-off, Fly Transparent, to market the flight plan technology. Market studies that will poll drone users interests will begin soon, said Hugh K. Bolton, WSRI’s director of commercialization.
Safety features of the technology would be free to drone users, and more detailed information, like setting up a flight plan based on current weather, might be offered under a tiered-subscription plan, officials said.
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