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While the drone industry grows faster than the flick of a joystick, regulation lags

January 7, 2015 at 6:20 PM EDT
Professional and recreational uses for drones have driven a fast-growing industry, but safety and privacy laws are struggling to keep up. Science correspondent Miles O’Brien reports on why everyone from farmers to football coaches are flying drones, and what challenges the government faces in regulating the unmanned aerial vehicles.

JUDY WOODRUFF: If you feel like you’re hearing a lot about drones these days, well, that’s because interest in them is booming.

Last night, we showed you how they’re being used to further protect the cultural heritage in Peru. In the U.S., they’re starting to be used for all kinds of purposes. And while the prospect of ever more drones may be concerning to some, the question is rapidly becoming, are they safe and how should they be regulated?

Science correspondent Miles O’Brien has our report.

MILES O’BRIEN: The sky may be big and blue, but it is getting more crowded every day, as makers of small unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, test their limits.

MICHAEL SHABUN, DJI Innovations: The thing is very fast. It can fly about 70 miles an hour.

MILES O’BRIEN: Oh, geez.

The man at the controls is Michael Shabun. He works for a company that is growing faster than he can flick a joystick, China-based DJI Innovations, the market leader in the personal drone industry.

MICHAEL SHABUN: We have gone from 50 employees to 3,000 employees in just under three years, so the industry is booming.

MILES O’BRIEN: Americans are likely to spend $130 million on 400,000 drones this year. The Consumer Electronics Association predicts annual sales will approach one million units in the next four years.

And the FAA says private drones will be a $90 billion industry in the next decade. DJI flew on to the scene in a big way with this little craft, the Phantom, which comes equipped with a gyroscopically stabilized camera for about $1,300. The DJI model Shabun flew for us, the Inspire 1, sells for $3,000 and is aimed at professionals.

MICHAEL SHABUN: A lot of the time, when you are trying to be versatile on set, this is the perfect product to use.

MILES O’BRIEN: Filmmakers and journalists seeking stunning shots like these may be the most obvious commercial users of this technology. But farmers are also interested, hoping to spot diseased crops and reduce the use of chemicals in water.

Contractors want them for surveys, and firefighters and coaches see drones as a way to better strategize. But here’s the rub. Right now, widespread commercial use of drones is essentially prohibited by the FAA. Congress told the agency to write some rules of the sky for drone flight by may. But the agency is struggling with an unprecedented challenge.

Michael Huerta is the FAA administrator.

MICHAEL HUERTA, Administrator, Federal Aviation Administration: A bedrock principle of aviation is see and avoid. And if you don’t have a pilot on board the aircraft, you need something that will substitute for that, which will sense other aircraft, and we can ensure appropriate levels of safety.

MILES O’BRIEN: But drones are leading the FAA into uncharted territory, far from the conventional aviation players.

So the agency is moving slowly, unsure how to catch this flying tiger by the tail. The FAA recently started granting exemptions for farmers, real estate agents, surveyors and even some video production companies that want to use drones for Hollywood movies and music videos.

They have also created six drone test sites across the country to experiment with new types of aircraft.

WOMAN: But the first launch today didn’t go exactly as planned.

MILES O’BRIEN: Earning some unwelcome local news notoriety.

MICHAEL HUERTA: We have the opportunity to do it quickly, or we have the opportunity to do it right. We’re very focused on doing it right, so that we don’t in any way compromise safety.

MILES O’BRIEN: Meanwhile, there is nothing stopping individuals from flying drones, so long as they are not doing it for hire. And while they are supposed to keep their flights below 400 feet and at least five miles from major airports, YouTube has become a repository of proof that people are ignoring or ignorant of those rules, or just being plain stupid. Someone is definitely going to poke an eye out.

Chris Anderson is working on some solutions. He is the founder and CEO of Berkeley-based 3D Robotics. The company sells drones in the vanguard of technology.

CHRIS ANDERSON, 3D Robotics: I tell it to do a 3-D model of that smokestack.

MILES O’BRIEN: His drones can be controlled with smartphones and will fly a preordained route that the user simply draws out on a map.

Drone on a mission here, huh?

CHRIS ANDERSON: If you want to fly, it comes with a joystick. Knock yourself out. Me, I want the video. I want the data. I want the photo. I didn’t want to push a button on my phone and have it do the work.

Right now, you can take a drone out of the box and fly it in Manhattan. You shouldn’t. It is not allowed. You know, it’s somewhere between regulatory infringement and reckless endangerment.

Maybe the drone should just — you know, it says, hey, ready to fly? Oh, I happen to notice you are on a balcony in Manhattan. That’s not appropriate.


CHRIS ANDERSON: Let’s not fly here.

So we can do — we can do more as an industry to help people behave responsibly.

MILES O’BRIEN: For Anderson, the biggest drone payoff is this, a stunning photorealistic 3-D image.

CHRIS ANDERSON: So that is reality capture. This is how we digitize the world. We don’t get satellites to do it three months ago at low resolution, and we don’t pay planes to do it. We get drones to be sky view, to go along with Google’s Street View.

MILES O’BRIEN: Google has joined Amazon in developing drones that might one day deliver packages from warehouse to doorstep. But pulling this off without hitting a kid in the sandbox or terrorizing the dog requires drones to sense and avoid autonomously.

This would make the FAA happy and, in fact, is the Holy Grail of dronedom.

Mechanical engineer Vijay Kumar is hoping to find it in his lab at the University of Pennsylvania.

VIJAY KUMAR, University of Pennsylvania: The thing that machines don’t do is really bring so — humanlike intelligence to the picture, which is really looking at the scene, interpreting the scene, reasoning about the physical world, and then figuring out what actions to take.

MILES O’BRIEN: Kumar is designing drones to do just that, although he prefers to call them robots. In late 2013, he gave me a fascinating demonstration of a flying robot designed to navigate, sense and avoid even inside, where GPS is useless.

The robot was able to map out the walls of the building, avoid hitting them, and also me when I walked into harm away. It is equipped with stereo, wide-angle cameras, a laser range scanner, a GPS receiver, a magnetometer, and an inertial measurement unit.

How many of these sensors do you need to be safe?

VIJAY KUMAR: So, this entire sensor sweep is actually required for it to navigate in most environments, because, generally, one or the other thing will always fail.

MILES O’BRIEN: Kumar is also working on ways for unmanned flying vehicles to avoid each other. Check out this dizzying swarm.

VIJAY KUMAR: Essentially, what is happening is, every vehicle is responsible for itself, but they all have radios and they talk to each other. They can also negotiate safe paths by just communication.

MILES O’BRIEN: Without the human being necessarily being a part of that?

VIJAY KUMAR: And the human being is not a part of this. In fact, it would be very hard for you and me to remote pilot these and control them the way you are seeing them fly.

MILES O’BRIEN: But maybe the answer is not as hard as making drones smarter. What about simply smaller?

CHRIS ANDERSON: As the sensors get better and smaller and cheaper, then the drones around them will get smaller as well and lighter. And at a certain point, you know, it won’t be much larger than this, something that gives you the same video quality as today’s larger drones.

And, at that point, I don’t think we worry as much. There might be privacy concerns, but they’re probably not going to be hit-you-on-the-head concerns.

MILES O’BRIEN: Privacy remains a persistent concern. The potential consequences of drones as airborne Peeping Toms inspired a recent skewering on “South Park.”

ACTOR: We can spy on everyone.

ACTOR: My dad said it is not for spying on people.

ACTOR: Butters, that is all drones are for.

MILES O’BRIEN: But privacy is the purview of local governments, which are all over the map on whether or how to regulate small drone flights. Don’t expect the FAA to solve this.

MICHAEL HUERTA: The FAA has one focus. We don’t regulate anything that flies in our airspace for its use. What we regulate for is its safety. And with this technology, that’s where our focus needs to be as well.

MILES O’BRIEN: Here we go.

And along with the potentially useful applications, drone technology has taken selfies to a whole new level. We posed with Chris Anderson for our first dronie.

I mean, a selfie is really primitive, right?


MILES O’BRIEN: I mean, really. The sky isn’t falling or is?

CHRIS ANDERSON: The sky is not falling. The sky is opening.

MILES O’BRIEN: Smile and say, Chicken Little.

Miles O’Brien, the PBS NewsHour, Berkeley, California.