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FAA Setting Rules for Civilian Drone Aircraft in 2012; Future of Air Medical Transport?

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The FAA is intending to propose new rules for civilian use of small drone aircraft in January, paving the way for police departments, fire departments, farmers, hospitals, and utility companies to legally operate their own robotic aircraft.

UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), also known popularly as “drones,” are most recognized for their crucial role in the war in Afghanistan, where they assisted in scouting out Taliban hideouts with less risk to U.S. soldiers. They were also used extensively in the second war in Iraq.

Now, American farmers are looking to the future of the small flying aircraft to aid in spraying their crops, as farmers in a few other countries have been doing for years. Meanwhile, American utility companies are apparently interested in using the technology to remotely monitor oil, gas, and water pipelines.

You may recall that after the catastrophic tsunami that struck Japan earlier this year, several types of robotic aircraft assisted air ambulance crews in search and rescue operations. Small quad-bladed helicopter drones were deployed to locate victims in destroyed areas (many of which were cut off to ground vehicles) so that air ambulances could then airlift the victims to appropriate healthcare facilities.

It’s been left up to the FAA to establish a first set of complete regulations for civilian drone aircraft use starting in January 2012. This set of rules (really a set of permissions) can be considered the first step toward a brave new world where robotic aircraft are a common sight in the skies.

The FAA hasn’t fully permitted drones in airspace at home due to concerns that the robotic craft do not yet have sufficient “detect, sense, and avoid” (DSA) technology. Understandably, the agency is apprehensive about the potential for harmful midair collisions with other (possibly manned) aircraft.

There are also privacy issues to consider. Will the aircraft, which make widespread use of mounted cameras, be permitted to hover unfettered over American neighborhoods? Businesses? Industrial and utility property? How might criminals, or even terrorists use drones once their presence is no longer a spectacle? As we quickly approach the year 2012, this “devil’s advocate” line of questioning represents very real concerns facing Western civilization.

The U.S. aviation industry believes these concerns can be addressed, and that the “good guys” will be their biggest market for domestic drones initially. Police departments in Texas, Minnesota, and Florida have already expressed a strong interest in obtaining their own drone aircraft for criminal surveillance and tracking fugitives from the law with heat-seeking cameras.

This story may seem like the science fiction of years past, but the technology of reality has now caught up with the writer’s imagination. What’s more, now that robotic aircraft technology has arrived, it’s very unlikely to disappear.

Civilian Uses for Drone Aircraft

Japan has been using small, pilotless aircraft in civilian applications for years. Many farmers in Japan use flying drones to automatically spray their crops. Small hovering aircraft were also used for medical purposes in search and rescue operations, as well as to inspect the damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant while radiation levels peaked.

Turkey, Argentina, South Korea, and other countries have also made use of drone aircraft specifically for farming purposes.

Back in the U.S., officials are planning on deploying security surveillance drones at the Republican National Convention (RNC) held in Tampa, Florida next year. Last month, city officials in Tampa, Florida expressed an interest in obtaining security drones to use against Occupy Wall Street protestors.

On the business side, FedEx has already brought up the idea of using a fleet of drone aircraft, each carrying packages, led by a traditionally piloted plane. The latest UAV models are efficient at flying in formation, like segments of a caterpillar, or ducklings behind a mother duck, and thus would be perfectly suited to following behind larger traditional fixed-wing aircraft.

While there are a billion possible civilian applications for flight drones, the FAA is rightfully concerned about some technical issues that still hamper drone tech. One of these is “what to do” if communication is cut off and the aircraft falls out of the sky – say, flying straight through someone’s roof or into a person.

If drone use is to become as widespread as analysts are predicting, there remains the nagging criminal/terrorist element to consider. As of now, drone aircraft are not really capable of carrying heavy weapons or explosive ordinance. In addition, the sensational dangers of “suitcase nukes” and “dirty bombs” getting into the hands of terrorists inside the United States, a catastrophic fear that blossomed over a decade ago, haven’t been realized. But what about drones carrying “simple” equipment like surveillance cameras with infrared capability?

Well, luckily, drone aircraft technology is still so state-of-the-art that there are various prohibitive elements, such as cost, keeping the drones from falling into the wrong hands. However, while helicopters can cost millions of dollars, one of the new 5 1/2 pound quad-rotor drones is expected to cost only $40,000 – an investment which amounts to pennies for some criminals – let alone citizens who may wish to use the technology for stalking, spying, or even harassment purposes. As with the thousands of hand-held laser pens aimed at air ambulances and other aircraft every year, there is a dangerous “mischief” element to consider when releasing small robotic aircraft into the eager hands of civilians.

UAV Aircraft in Air Medical/Air Ambulance Operations

Clearly, if drone use does become as widespread as it’s expected to, the air medical field will likely be one of the first fields to take advantage of the state-of-the-art technology. Perhaps we won’t see (fully) robotic air ambulances – yet – as one of the many benefits of air ambulances is the trained staff of medical professionals that are on-hand to provide advanced care to the patient during the medical transport.

However, there are other possible uses for air medical unmanned aerial vehicles where the drone aircraft could be used in tandem with traditional staffed air ambulances. The flights carried out by these drones have already played a critical role in locating patients during search and rescue operations. Also, consider the FedEx example, where a fleet of drones could be used to carry packages or supplies behind a traditional piloted plane.

Imagine a future where each fixed-wing air ambulance has a “child” drone that scouts the flightpath ahead of the aircraft!

Years from now, robotic aircraft may become sufficiently advanced to safely assist in airlifting a patient, or performing other tasks to free up the air medical crew to attend to other important concerns with the transport. Indeed, once the technology becomes widespread and cost is no longer a prohibitive factor, air medical UAVs (you heard it here first – we coined the term) will become a normal part of air ambulance operations. The possibilities are there, and many more applications for air medical operations are sure to be discovered along the way.

What do you think of civilian use of drone aircraft? Police and Fire Rescue workers have already given an idea of how the technology can be used in their departments. Can you think of any ways the technology could be best applied to the air medical field? We’d enjoy hearing any thoughts you have.

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