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Drone Debrief

Sharing the Skies – Safely!

By Emanuel Cruz

Source: FAA Safety Briefing July/August 2019


Walking down the street recently, I came across the illuminated orange hand on the other side of the intersection that clearly said, “don’t walk.” As I stood waiting for the return of the “walk” sign, I saw a couple of teenagers head into the road. They had apparently seen the stopped traffic and figured they could cross. But then a car started to make a left turn into the intersection. They made it, but they had created a greater risk for themselves, and their actions affected the flow of traffic. I remember thinking that if those kids were drivers, they might have acted differently.

There is a parallel in what the FAA is facing now with the new entrants to the skyways — drone operators. Traditional pilots understand that the skies are a roadway, but not all individuals who operate drones share that understanding. Many see drones as a contraption more akin to a phone than an aircraft. But at the high speeds that manned aircraft fly, an encounter with even a small drone can cause tragic results. So as drone technology develops, the FAA is also working to bring these operators into the same safety culture that traditional aviators incorporate from the start of their training.

To engage with the broad audience of these new operators, the FAA has established a presence at major tradeshows to share safety and regulatory considerations when operating a drone. For example, for the past three years the FAA has staffed a booth in the drone section of the Consumer Electronics Show, a trade show that attracted over 180,000 attendees from 160 countries in 2017 and 2018. The agency distributed materials on registration, flying safely, and regulations for both recreational and commercial operators. Additionally, the FAA has joined forces with public safety officials, the amusement park industry, academia, and more to share the safety culture message.

The FAA recognizes that there is already an industry of drone operators with a strong commitment to safety, and partners with these industry members to amplify the safety message. Organizations such as the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) and the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) are key partners, and they support a public education campaign called, “Know Before You Fly.” Additionally, the agency works with the Unmanned Aircraft Safety Team (UAST), which is an industry-government partnership committed to ensuring the safe operation of drones in the National Airspace System. The UAST includes traditional aviation organizations such as the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) and the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), as well as drone manufacturers and companies using drones in their operations. This collaboration aims to leverage partnerships to develop safety enhancements across the drone industry.

Sharing the safety message and leveraging industry buy-in are important elements for devel-oping a culture of safety in drone operations. The FAA is also working to build a strong safety culture inside companies that are just beginning to carry out operations with drones. The agency is pleased to find that many of these companies already have a robust safety culture in place that they can leverage as they expand into drone operations. After all, companies whose work includes climbing towers or rappelling down cliffs would not stay in business without ensuring safety in their daily operations. As in every area, though, there is always room for improvement — and the FAA is doing everything we can to help impart the safety culture message.

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Emanuel Cruz is the manager of the Safety and Operations Branch in the FAA’s Office of Unmanned Aircraft Systems.

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