Useful Drones? Unpiloted Vehicles' Safety being Measured

Oct 23, 2017

Federal Aviation rules prohibit commercial drones from flying over people. But last week, Federal Aviation Administration granted the first waiver of its kind to CNN, allowing it to fly the aircraft over crowds for newsgathering. Drone safety remains a concern as more unpiloted vehicles take to the skies.

CNN got the waiver after it demonstrated to FAA’s satisfaction, that there’ no risk of injury from its one-and-a-half-pound drone.  The move comes just as Virginia Tech has finished a drone safety study of its own.

Tech did not test CNN’s exact model, but it did look at drones of similar size and concluded, there’s very little risk of injury if you were to get hit by one, but… 

“As you add more mass and velocity you add more energy and you add greater risk of injury.”

Virginia Tech engineering professor Stefan Duma leads the Injury Biomechanics drone testing team.   “So, the heavier drones, the ones we had that were over 11 kg, there’s a very high risk of injury.” 

But drones are clearly coming to air space near you.  So, Duma’s team is working with companies around the world to design safety into them

“What we’re suggesting, is that injury risk be part of the design, just like injury risk is part of the design of an automobile.  (Just as) when we add air bags and seat belts and all kind of protective counter measures, we can do similar things, in terms of foam and padding structures, within the drone, so that in the case, if there is an impact, the risk is as low as possible,” Duma says.

The Federal Aviation Administration estimates there will be nearly half a million commercial drones in the U.S. by 2021.

Drones are taking off as the ‘go-to’ option for, well, just about everything. Right now, F-A-A rules prohibit unpiloted aircraft from flying over people, but that’s changing.  Robbie Harris has more


Mark Blanks is director of the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP) which runs test ranges for Drones in its Blacksburg facility.

“We’re definitely approaching the Jetsons’ age quicker, so we’ll see in the next, probably decades, the ability to have flying personal transportation. There’s a lot of hurdles to overcome but the future has arrived now.”

And as with any paradigm shift, people have questions.  A conference last week explored the idea of ‘trust’ that widespread deployment of drones will be safe and beneficial.

Blanks says the questions the conference explored included; “How does the pubic society, regulators, even ourselves believe that the aircraft or the technology is going to do what we think it’s going to do, that its predictable, and that we can trust that this system is safe to use?”

Results of MAAP’s landmark drone safety study showed the small ones pose very little risk to people, while larger aircraft could cause serious injury to people. The FAA prohibits drones flying over people, but it last week, it granted a special waver to CNN allowing it to use the unpiloted vehicles for newsgathering. And there could soon be more.