2:15pm

Tue June 24, 2014
Technology

A Wild West In Flight: Drones Outpace The Rules Reining Them In

Originally published on Mon June 30, 2014 7:49 am

Drone technology has moved at a quicker pace than the rules regulating their use, creating an environment that journalist Craig Whitlock likens to the Wild West. He talks with Audie Cornish about what he learned in the course of reporting his series "Hazard Above," which addresses the safety record of drones for The Washington Post.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

When it comes to surveillance of the nation's borders, drones have become an important tool. But in the last five years, there have been more than 200 unsafe or abnormal incidents involving drones flown by civilian agencies, the majority of them belonging to Customs and Border Protection. Meanwhile, since 2001, U.S. military drones have been involved in more than 400 major accidents, both here at home and in war zones overseas. Those are just some of the findings of a Washington Post investigation into the safety record of American drones.

Craig Whitlock is a reporter on the series and he joins us now in studio to talk more. Craig Whitlock, welcome to the program.

CRAIG WHITLOCK: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: So drone accident reports are not easy to come by, and you only got a hold of them after filing Freedom of Information Act request. Describe some of the accidents that you learned about, both overseas and here in the U.S.

WHITLOCK: Well, we knew there had been a number of drone crashes, we didn't know how many. So when we kept digging, we kept finding more and more and were pretty startled by the sheer number. But what really struck me in looking through these voluminous investigation reports were the ways in which they crashed.

There was one Predator drone in Afghanistan that crashed because the pilot didn't realize it was upside down. She was literally flying this thing upside down and thought it was going fine. And they kept warning her, it's upside down and she didn't believe them. In other cases, drones - four cases in Afghanistan - drones just kept going into thin air and they never came back. Other cases, they crashed on runways very frequently, pilots flew them into mountains without even realizing that the mountains were there. In one case just in April, there was an Army drone that crashed in a schoolyard in Pennsylvania. So the circumstances after you read enough of these cases get pretty alarming.

CORNISH: And meanwhile here in the U.S., we're on the edge of a drone boom, right? Just how many drones are expected to be taking to airspace in the next few years? What kind of regulations are being discussed?

WHITLOCK: Well, there's going to be an enormous boom, as you put it. They FAA's developing rules that will legalize commercial drones in U.S. airspace. Congress passed a law authorizing this two years ago. Nobody really knows for sure, but the FAA has estimated that we're looking at 7,000 or 8,000 drones - small drones, just in the next few years. After that, it's really anybody's guess. They'll be opening up airspace in stages, but eventually, the law says a complete integration of drones into American airspace. So that means the same airports, the same airspace. They'll be treated like other aircraft.

CORNISH: What's the rush to open up this airspace and what is that rush doing to the FAA? What's the pressure on them?

WHITLOCK: Well, you say rush, but the drone industry and manufacturers actually say this is going very, very slow - that other countries have moved ahead. In Japan and Australia, they're commonly use drones for agriculture, small delivery, things like this. And that the demand has been building for the last few years in the United States for civilian drones, for private companies, for deliveries, for surveillance, police agencies really want to use them.

One poll I'm aware of by the Pew Research Center recently found that a majority - almost 60 percent of Americans - did have concerns about legalizing drones in U.S. airspace and commercial drones in particular. So there's certainly a lot of concern out there that the FAA and the industry are going to have to alleviate.

CORNISH: I mean, despite the fairly significant number of accidents, there have been no reports of deaths or serious injuries. And, of course, U.S. military says that drone flights are getting safer with increased use. How concerned should we still be about the safety of drones going forward?

WHITLOCK: Well, you're right, the military has not had any accidental deaths from drones. Although they have had at least one midair collision that certainly brought home the dangers of this. But I think one thing you have to recognize - the military's actually pretty good flying these. They've been flying them for millions of hours, they have more experience with drones than any other organization or country in the world, and they're still having problems. The concern is when civilians start flying them, whether it's businesses or government agencies or hobbyists, what's going to happen when they start flying them? And what are the standards going to be? And what are the requirements going to be to ensure that they can fly them safely?

CORNISH: Craig Whitlock of the Washington Post, thank you so much for talking with us.

WHITLOCK: Thank you.

CORNISH: Craig Whitlock's year-long investigation into drone safety is called "Hazard Above." This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.