Soon, only not yet
Last year, one news outlet, whose name is irrelevant, released drone-generated video of tornado damage in Tuscaloosa, AL, and Joplin, MO. The FAA stepped in and insisted they cease and desist airing the footage and gathering news with a drone, which they did. This happened because, as Professor Waite suggests, one earth-shaking video or photo from a drone could open the flood gates and overwhelm federal regulators. The FAA wants to avoid that scenario.
If the federal government thinks we have RF spectrum problems, wait until drone airspace becomes a problem. It is unlikely that a local altitude coordinator will operate like a local SBE frequency coordinator. Rather, the FAA wants to pre-approve commercial drone flight patterns before launch. How will this affect journalistic activity if an event occurs that someone in authority doesn’t want broadcast? How quickly can they respond? Could pre-approval amount to censorship?
The FAA is in a most precarious position. The technology and hunger for what drones offer has surpassed the agency’s ability to effect regulatory changes. Problems are huge, ranging from privacy and liability to safety. Privacy and liability issues are interesting and will certainly have an ultimate effect, but as this is a Broadcast Engineering tutorial, we’ll leave such heady legal debate to the experts and the water cooler.
Speaking of legal issues, what’s the safest prediction about commercial drones? It would be that another lucrative new industry will be born simultaneously — Drone Law. What happens when an errant drone takes down a manned aircraft or airliner? I don’t think any of us want to know, but the experienced broadcast engineer knows better than to completely rule out anything. In addition to Murphy’s Law, add gravity to your list of things to consider.
Next to gravity, the next biggest problem with drones is their autonomy. They have no sense-and-avoid technology. They do as they are told, completely ignorant of their surroundings. This technology must be mature before drones are deployed around people. Most drones already have some fail-safe technology. They shut down and auto rotate to the ground with loss of signal or propulsion. Auto-rotate works better with more rotors. It won’t slow the descent of a dead four-rotor platform as it would an 8-rotor platform.
Another item worth consideration is hacking and viruses. PBS recently reported a story about key-logging viruses in a government drone network. You can find the story here. If it can happen in the military, should your station be concerned?
Another concern is GPS spoofing. GPS signals, as you may know, are not secure. Recently, a University of Texas professor and his students built a device to spoof GPS altitude data and used it to reduce the altitude of a GPS-controlled drone until manual override was required to keep it from crashing into the ground. The device cost less than $1000 to build.