Drones may need black boxes to operate safely

By Benjamin O. Powers

Drones are starting to take to the sky in an ever increasing form and number. According to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, as of February, more than 1.3 million UAS have been registered with the FAA in all. Of these, more than 316,000 have been registered for commercial use.  Additionally, the most recent FAA projections are that commercial drones alone will quadruple to about 450,000 unmanned aerial vehicles by 2022.

“With more drones flying than ever before, there will, of course, be an increased concern for public security,” said Jeff Thompson, CEO of Red Cat, a drone hardware and technology company.  “However, drones will also increasingly be used to improve public security, as an aerial view can be a game changer for those involved in security. Drones for public security can be deployed much faster and are much more cost effective than helicopters.”

But the prevalence of drones also come with risk. To start, drones are hard to track and don’t show up on airplane radar. Earlier this year, Newark Airport had to delay planes from flying in and out when two drones were detected. Last December, a drone punctured a plane’s exterior when during a landing in Mexico.

Red Cat, a company that manufactures black boxes for drones, is now working on a variety of technologies that make drones more visible and easier to track. Their black boxes, now in their second beta, track data including flight performance, flight paths, and drone ownership, then uses the blockchain to keep the information safe.

Thompson sees Red Cat’s work and tech as crucial in three areas. First, their black box makes drones trackable and accountable. Second, their DroneShield Technology works with the ADS-B Transponder system (which is how planes communicate and locate each other) along with our flight controller to control the drone and not allow it to enter the perceived danger zone of an aircraft. Third, he mentions Red Cat’s ongoing involvement with the First Person View (FPV) Coalition, which is working closely with the FAA in establishing and codifying a regulatory framework for the drone industry.

“Red Cat’s technology specifically improves the tracking and accountability factor with our drone black box flight recorder and airspace safety with our drone shield technology,” said Thompson.

The industry leaders also recognize the need to address these issues, which will only get more challenging and prevalent as the number of drones grows. Tom McMahon, Vice President of Advocacy and Public Affairs at AUVSI, believes that the accountability Red Cat’s black box tech offers is one of the areas that need to be expanded on going forward.

“Tracking drone activity from current aviation systems isn’t readily available, but the UAS industry is hard at work developing remote identification and tracking technologies,” said McMahon. “For example, DJI’s AeroScope can identify a vast majority of popular drones, particularly those DJI manufacturers, by monitoring and analyzing their electronic signals. That helps law enforcement or others who are responsible for safety and protection, such as government facilities and infrastructure operators.”

Remote ID, or the ability to identify and establish ownership of a drone from a distance, is another area that will be key for the future, both for drone users and public safety officials.

“Remote ID is necessary for law enforcement to determine whether a drone is a friend or a foe, and to determine whether mitigation is necessary,” said. MacMahon. “This information would lead to stricter enforcement against careless, reckless and other potentially malicious behavior, not only punishing operators who misuse UAS technology but deterring others from doing so.”

As the field continues to expand, implementing common practices like those Red Cat is offering, as well as regulatory guidelines to go with them, will decide how  safe people are in the future. It’s not a matter of if these developments happen, but when, and it should be sooner rather than later.

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