The Week In Drones: No-Fly Maps, Protecting Future Japan, And More

Keeping up with the droneses

A Field Near Madison Wisconsin

Yinan Chen, via Wikimedia Commons

Here's a roundup of the week's top drone news: the military, commercial, non-profit, and recreational applications of unmanned aircraft.

Drone Saves Man

Drones have a lot to offer search and rescue. Crop fields and forests are impenetrable to a naked eye from the ground, and much easier to scan from above. In Wisconsin, searchers using a drone found a missing 82-year-old eye doctor in a bean field.

No-Fly Zones

While eventually the FAA plans to open up some of the sky for drones, large chunks of sky remain off limits. "Don't Fly Drones Here" is a map project that shows what parts of the country are currently known to be off limits. A word of warning: because of the nature of the project, this map identifies what is explicitly off-limits, but shouldn't be trusted as a guide for where drones are permitted. (A particularly glaring example already highlighted on Github: the special Washington, DC ban on all drones is presently missing).

Anti-Poaching Partners

Airware, a drone autopilot company, just completed 10 days of testing in Kenya's 90,000-acre Ol Pejeta animal conservancy. Drones, with low flight costs, ease of use, and ability to watch over large stretches of rural terrain, are an ideal tool for protecting wildlife and fighting poachers. Infrared cameras allow the drones to watch night and day, and the recent partnership between the Conservancy and Airware show a bright future of wildlife protecting drones.

Waterbuck at Sweetwaters Tented Camp, Kenya

Jan Arkesteijn, via Wikimedia Commons

Japan's Robotic Skies

Over the next decade, Japan plans to invest over $370 million in drones, according to a senior defense analyst. This is reflected in Japan's 2014 defense budget. According to a provisional English translation from Japan's Ministry of Defense, drones fit into a early warning and surveillance role:

Carry out continuous surveillance across wide areas, strengthen information gathering, warning and surveillance capabilities in the seas and airspace surrounding Japan, and consider the introduction of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), in order to make early detection of various warning signs possible.

Slow Regulation, Stagnant Markets

The FAA's hesitance to regulate drones and integrate them into regular airspace is holding back both industry and science, two different editorials argue. In The Speaker, a Stimson Center report on the failures of drone integration indicates major challenges for U.S. drone makers. The Speaker says:

Export control rules in the US are ambiguous, the report explained, not clearly drawing a distinction between “unarmed military unmanned aerial vehicles” and other unarmed drones, while subjecting military vehicles to stricter export controls. This prevents manufacturers from measuring the size of their markets, “chilling” their production, according to the report.

Meanwhile, a report at Government Technology notes that slow regulation is impeding the ability of Americans to use drones for science, and therefore hurting science. Gaps in the rules for piloted aircraft and unmanned drones create new and frustrating problems. For example, at a marine sanctuary, "flights aren't allowed below 1,000 feet under sanctuary rules, but can't go higher than 400 feet under FAA rules." Besides legal absurdities, the drone rules themselves hinder scientists who want to use the technology. Jason Hoppin, writing for McClatchy News Service, notes:

While the current regulatory environment allows scientific drone use, Jacobs described rules that sound burdensome. Trained pilots are required to operate the unmanned drones, communication frequencies have to be cleared through the Federal Communications Commission and drones often have to stay within a pilot's line of sight — even though they could be programmed to patrol and explore a much larger area.

It's a frustrating legal environment for a promising technology.

Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary

Big Sur coastline looking north to Bixby Canyon BridgeRobert Schwemmer, CINMS, NOAA, via Wikimedia Commons

Did I miss any drone news? Email me at kelsey.d.atherton@gmail.com.