Clip the wings of drone cowboys?


As reported in the Sydney Morning Herald today:

"The chief executive of the US consumer drone maker 3D Robotics wants the cowboys who have tarnished the name of the hobby to have their wings clipped.

Chris Anderson, the co-founder and chief executive of the Bay Area-based start-up, has even coined a term for the phenomenon: "mass jackassery".

"[It's] bad and it's going to get worse. And if we don't do something about it, no one's been killed yet, but someone's going to do something really stupid," he told Fairfax Media.

Full story here.

Hard not to agree, especially after the recent US Open saga.  Whilst the media down here appears to be primarily concerned about privacy, I'm sure we have all seen pilots acting irresponsibly.

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  • @ Philip

    I hope that I'm not giving the impression that regulation won't help at all, it can. But I'm not confident it will offer the level of protection we want or expect. UAVs haven't yet peaked in their development either, so there might be more factors to consider.

    The weight restriction is functional in my opinion, and it even allows non-licenced operators to earn some coin. Safety shouldn't be about the money, it should be about the training and reduction of risk. I can't see a sub 2kg airframe taking out a full size aircraft, let alone a passenger jet. A heli tail rotor maybe...which is bad enough, but not that common either, plus it would probably impact somewhere else along the front first. From a risk perspective there are many dynamics (like in-compressible components, fuel, impact velocity, location etc) to consider on the UAV and aircraft side.

    RTF is an issue in some aspects because it gives people the ability to try without knowing how. Until now there is no affordable avoidance systems but that will change in a year or two, which will help. Some education and training would go a long way and some built in safety measures where possible wouldn't hurt either.

    I don't see malicious users as only being terrorists, I think there's a sliding scale up to that point, where kids and adults try to do stupid things to push the limits. Like cars are used for airbagging etc. The more accessible they become the more stupid ways they'll think of to use them, especially so if they themselves are not in harms way.

    I sound old somehow! ;-)

  • @JB -- I also have no problem adding accountability to government regulations. I believe the proposed Consumer Drone Safety Act includes accountability requirements. It's a very good idea that would help.

  • Excellent comments, JB.

    You are right about the limited effectiveness of a voluntary adoption of built-in flight safety restrictions. A voluntary approach does not legally require all manufacturers to include the same safety restrictions. As a result, I fear that the only option left for the government will be to regulate. Regulations create common safety standards that all manufactures must follow -- or face prosecution and penalties. 

    I see the main problem as idiot pilots and not intentionally malicious pilots. Malicious pilots with high motivation will be nearly impossible to stop (call them terrorists). Fortunately, there are very few of those. The idiot pilots are the ones responsible for the daily headlines. They are the problem that needs to be better addressed, IMO. This problem becomes most apparent with easy to use, ready to fly (RTF) drones. I was not a big problem before RTF drones. DJI was the infamous leader in idiot pilots. Now, 3DR risks becoming another one. 

    RTF is what enables the idiots. 

    As for regulations, there are many already enforced for cars to enhance safety. Seat belts are the most obvious example. They save lives and are an undeniably good idea. 

    Tough problem. But we can't expect the government to ignore the growing drone safety problems. Chaos is not an option. So unless effective solutions are developed relatively quickly by manufacturers, new consumer drone regulations are coming, IMO. Either before or after a tragedy. Hopefully before. 

  • Philip

    I'm not sure of the the exact definition of "drone cowboy". If it is meant to represent "idiot operators" that don't know what they are doing or are to inexperienced to do so, or if it's an experienced operator doing something they shouldn't. I think the likelihood of a serious event is reduced with a untrained pilot in comparison to someone that can fly and intentionally wants to do something wrong or cause harm.

    In order to do something wrong with model aircraft you don't need an autopilot, you can just do it with RC. Not having an autopilot also means that the aircraft has no GPS or geofencing capability, so 400FT, LOS, exclusion areas etc are mute. Also why would a cowboy or novice choose the more expensive model with autopilot and GPS rather than the cheaper manual version, if the autopilot offers no advantage in doing something harmful or wrong? Typically cowboys have a budget, even though some cowboys have more money than sense. ;-)

    Fact is:

    1) Pixhawk, APM and clones along with (previous) firmware without safety precautions are already available worldwide - anyone intentionally wanting to misuse APM will continue to be able to do so into the future - inexperienced and low budget operators can buy one for $50 online and install firmware flavour of their own choice

    2) 3DR aren't the only manufactures of the hardware - and the software and hardware is developed openly allowing anyone to fork it - the safety mechanisms will need to be in the software, not the hardware - so the perceived obligation might not be with the hardware manufacturers at all...although some software development is funded by manufacturers. Pointing the finger will be hard either way

    3) without locking up the open source software there is little that can be regulated. Clones will simply become the next "threatening" drone manufacturers, leaving the more expensive regulated drones less adopted. This is a regressive feedback loop

    The inherent problem with all of the above is accountability. "Cowboys" think it's like a video game, where everyone can re-spawn at the end of a death match. They think they are invincible, simply because of the disconnect between the risk to their own physical bodies and that of the perceived "disposable" aircraft. FPV is a classic example of that. In comparison flying and then crashing a full size aircraft typically doesn't fair well for the pilots or people on the ground. With RC/UAV's however, pilots are unaffected and there are no feelings for self-preservation, apart from the monetary loss.

    Serial numbers (microdots?) on every UAV component and a package warning stating that the serial ID numbers are publicly listed to trace a customer might make a cowboy reconsider a risky flight, but once again the manufacturers that don't do this, will outsell those that do. One simple way to reduce the risk overall, however, is to limit the size and weight of the aircraft. But regardless of how well regulated there will always be a way for people to circumvent it, even if it is simply by handing a novice/cowboy a controller. 

    A good example is cars. They are heavily regulated in operation and manufacturing. Have been in "development" for over 100 years with all manner of safety precautions mandated, marketed and adopted in vehicles, roads and regulation. Trillions spent. Yet cars are still lethal. They kill over 1 million people each year and most of those deaths are driver errors or intentional, not manufacturing ones (drivers are in charge of maintenance too). Drink driving, phone use, excessive speed for the conditions, over-confidence, depression, drugs etc all factors of bad human behaviour that result in tragic endings, even for the innocent bystander. And that's not including the "side-effects" of driving cars, like respiratory disease caused by pollution, environmental decay, resource wars for oil, economic monopoly and centralisation etc etc. There are solutions for cars as well (breathalyser, mobile lockout, outright banning!), but people are not very aware of the risks they expose themselves to every day, let alone how their actions might impact someone else. This is the case with many, many things in our world.

    So the fact remains that operators need to be responsible in their actions. This all starts with good parenting of their behaviour towards themselves and others.

    Regards JB


  • Everyone is rightfully upset and disgusted with "idiot drone pilots" doing stupid and dangerous things. This is especially true of the general public. So I see Chris Anderson's statement about "mass jackassery" as merely a recognition of the elephant in the room. 

    The real questions for 3DR are:

    1) What responsibility do drone manufacturers accept for improving drone safety?

    2) What is 3DR going to do about it?

    3) When will we see 3DR product changes to address it?

    Aside from eventually enforcing no-fly zones, which is a great idea, all ready to fly (RTF) drones should have basic flight restrictions enabled by default, IMO. That means the following flight restrictions would be enforced by consumer drone manufacturers right out of the box. 

    1) Unable to fly above 400 feet AGL from the launch location

    2) Unable to fly beyond the line of sight of the controller (perhaps 1200 feet for a 3DR Solo)

    3) Unable to fly within 5 miles of all major airports (additional no-fly zones to be added later)

    4) Unable to fly at night (perhaps allowed if the drone has an onboard lighting system)

    These simple restrictions would immediately reduce the number of dangerous incidents caused by newbie and idiot drone pilots. They can all be implemented relatively easily with current technology. 

    I'd love to hear Chris Anderson address the growing drone safety crisis more fully and directly. Specifically, what responsibility do manufacturers accept for themselves to improve drone safety? And how are they going to address it? I think this community, and the general public, is entitled to hear authoritative answers from drone manufacturers such as 3DR. 

    The urgency of this safety issue is only growing. Drone manufacturers would be wise to spell out their responsibilities now and clearly define their plans and schedules to address it. The alternative leaves it up to the government to create new safety regulations on consumer drones. Those regulations are surely coming unless solutions are found and implemented quickly. 

  • In Australia the CASA 101 and upcoming 102 regs will allow sub 2kg UAV operations without Operator Certificates. The safety case is that sub 2kg UAV's are fairly low risk on impact. There's arguments for and against this, rotor inertia being one of them.

    IMHO ultimately operators should be responsible for their actions and manufacturers should do whatever is in their power to make them safe to operate, and reliably follow the operators commands. Beyond that, however, the manufacturers will all suffer the same fate should an catalysing accident occur. Typically the more popular ones are without safe guards, and those with safe guards (at extra system cost which is less adopted)  will likely suffer the same consequences through extra regulation. This could all be due to intentional misbehaviour of the operator though, including circumventing manufacture safe guards, so regulatory enforcement will likely only result in less unintentional mishaps, but not make UAV operations safe against the more destructive intentional misuse.  

    Classic example is to intentionally fly a RC (no-autopilot or GPS) aircraft within an airport no fly zone. I'd say overall it's still easier to RC control aircraft to target other high velocity airspace users, then it is to plot their destruction using autopilot waypoints! You could try but it would be a feat in itself without live pilot input (FPV or other). If one wishes to target immobile on ground targets however, the autopilot waypoint system could be quite effective, but at the same time some type of payload would be required to "leave and impact".

    The point is that highly mobile and fast moving targets are harder to hit than stationary ground ones, but the moving "targets' are also typically more fragile and prone to resulting in casualties, than impacting ground targets with a "model" sized aircraft. Fundamentally people need to shake the idea that UAV's or Drones are military or movie like entities, all possessed with killing human kind. Skynet is (not) real....

    The Australian CASA approach to limiting the size therefore, would provide a good universal limitation to reduce the consequence of such perceived risks. This will in no way, however, reduce the intentional misuse or development of UAV's for attacks or privacy.

    In that regard 3DR is actually providing the easiest platform (Pixhawk) to custom build a munitions/delivery/spy platforms even for larger aircraft. I'm not suggesting that we abandon open source autopilot development, but I would recommend not to ride the moral high horse when it comes to "facilitating" cowboys to operate in potentially destructive rodeos because they fancy to do so. Dumb people will continue to do dumb things, as will violent people, violent things. Neither can be out-regulated.

    But as it stands the "cat is out of the bag" and no amount of lasso yielding regulatory bureaucats will get it back in the bag. The nature of open source and Internet has seen to it that the bag has all but disappeared. Of course tactically, pre-emptive 3DR finger pointing by the "Texas Ranger" of drones, might give them a better publicity position, should things really go south and regulatory enforcers go in search for a fall guy. ;-)



  • It used to be the case that when the actually newsworthy drone snafu happened it would likely be a small white UAV made by DJI. Now, if 3DR get their way, in the commercial sense, a small dark colored drone could be vying for the honor. When you are selling GPS enabled, autonomous UAV's in Best Buy I think you may need do more than 3DR is doing now. Even a Phantom 3 will not be fully autonomous with their new waypoints. I have always questioned the wisdom of pushing fully autonomous vehicles on the masses in this way--and I am a big user and fan of Arducopter. 

    I hope this is a serious question question Chris Anderson & Co are discussing. I have serious philosophical issues with 'pause' buttons that depend on GPS to work. Everything about the Solo as it has been pitched screams: No experience required to do complex autonomous missions! I think we all know DJI likely have enough engineering prowess to make a fully autonomous consumer drone. I likely think they see the downside of doing that given the number of units they sell. The technology will likely be there to 'enforce' safe use, but it is not there yet and what 3DR are trying to make mainstream -- fully autonomous, high quality aerial photography, could have potential issues in its current form if enough total newbies get their hands on these without any awareness of the real technical limitations of a 'Smart Drone.' 

    This is obviously not an easy problem.

  • John, we can have libertarians discussions elsewhere but every single consumer (and other) item which has radio emissions....let alone electricals....let along heavily regulated.

    7+ billion people in this world and commonly owned airspace....all of it together spells regulation.

    As one saying goes "people are basically good - it's just when you put two or more of them together that the problems start".....

    I have experience with everything from a hippie commune to a condo board to many businesses and orgs - and, believe me, having written rules and regulations provides a nice foundation for responsibility. Leaders - in this case manufacturers - are often the best entities to disseminate these guidelines, rules and regulations.

  • "Shouldn't responsibility start with the manufacturers and marketing? "

    No, personal responsibility is the job of the person, not the company or the state.

  • Nice promo for 3dr boss

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