“Flyaways” Create Safety & Commercial Issues

A computer that freezes might lose a document. A drone that malfunctions might fly away. As consumer drones take off, the burgeoning industry is struggling to overcome a problem known as “flyaways,” when devices go rogue and fly off from their users.

Drone makers say their devices can zoom off or drift away with the wind for a variety of reasons, including software glitches, bad Global Positioning System data and lost connections to controllers. Many incidents end with the devices barreling into buildings, trees or bodies of water.

There aren’t statistics on the number of flyaways yet, but examples abound, many of them recorded by the drones’ cameras and posted online.

“They’re dangerous,” says Darren Kelly, a videographer from Ontario, Canada, who watched one of his Chinese-made drones fly into a tree and another fly into Lake Ontario while he frantically tried to regain control. After the second flyaway, “that’s when I said, ‘Nope, this could hurt people,’ and hung it up,” he says.

Flyaways are one of several safety risks that the drone industry and aviation officials are aiming to solve, including flights over crowds and conflicts with manned aircraft.

Pilots already have reported dozens of cases in which drones flew too close to their aircraft, and the Federal Aviation Administration says the nation’s air-traffic system isn’t equipped to handle thousands of small devices buzzing around at low altitudes.

The FAA allows recreational drone flights, but it has effectively banned their commercial use until it complete rules for the devices in the next several years. A draft of those rules currently being reviewed by other agencies would limit who can fly drones commercially and how. Meanwhile, many users are nonetheless using unmanned aircraft for their businesses.

Drone makers say they include functions designed to prevent flyaways, and they are adding sensors and improving software to strengthen the safeguards.

“We have to make something that cannot go wrong in any scenario,” says Frank Wang, chief executive of SZ DJI Technology Co. His Shenzhen, China-based company makes the world’s most popular consumer drones, 2.8-pound quadcopters called Phantoms that are commonly featured in flyaway videos online.

Chris Anderson, the CEO of California-based drone maker 3D Robotics Inc., says his company is writing complex algorithms so its devices can perform “sanity checks,” which compare data from different sensors and ignore figures that seem inaccurate.

Drone makers say they are cursed by their biggest success: the rise in novice users.

Technology has made the devices cheaper and easier to fly, giving anyone who can spare a few hundred dollars access to small aircraft that can climb thousands of feet. As a result, drone makers say, many flyaways occur because untrained pilots struggle to steer drones to safety if the devices lose orientation because of bad GPS data or issues with their compasses. The companies say flyaways can also happen when users don’t calibrate the drone’s compass or configure its fail-safe functions.

“Now that we’ve made them so easy to fly, people just open up the box and put them in the air,” Mr. Anderson says. “It’s not that people are worse pilots; it’s that they’re not pilots at all.”

On an online forum for drone users, a poll of 774 people who said they owned DJI Phantoms showed that nearly a third had experienced a flyaway, including 122 users who never saw their devices again. DJI said its internal figures suggest the percentage of users reporting flyaways is decreasing as it improves its software and fail-safe functions.

Model aircraft have killed six people in the U.S. since 1979, according to the Academy of Model Aeronautics. Last year, a New Yorker was killed while performing stunts with his model helicopter.

None of the fatal incidents involved drones, which are model aircraft with onboard computers that make them more powerful and easier to fly. Drones have struck pedestrians and buildings, but there are no reports of the devices causing serious injuries or property damage.

Flyaways pose commercial as well as safety issues: No one wants their pricey gadget to run off. Rashad Dancer of Fort Worth, Texas, bought a $1,350 drone to start a business taking aerial photographs for construction companies. It disappeared over a Texas freeway in October. “My drone flew off, and my job flew with it,” the 23-year-old says.

Bob O’Connor, a nonprofit executive from Long Island, N.Y., says he hung lost-drone posters around his neighborhood recently after his $350 quadcopter faded off into the distance. “Sure enough, I get a call four days later that it landed in a neighbor’s azalea bush,” he says.

Military-drone operators have struggled with flyaways for years. In 2010, a 3,150-pound unmanned helicopter glided autonomously for 30 minutes—some of that in the restricted airspace of Washington, D.C.—after a software glitch severed its connection to its U.S. Navy pilots. And in October, U.S. Army pilots lost control of a hand-held drone over Columbus, Ga., telling air-traffic controllers the device was headed southwest and would run out of fuel in 40 minutes, according to federal records.

Preventing flyways requires fixing drones’ core technology. Satellite-based GPS and onboard compasses, used to help orient and stabilize the devices, can set drones adrift if tall buildings, cellphone towers or even solar flares interfere with their accuracy, drone makers say.

Electromagnetic interference, which many electrical systems emit, can also potentially disrupt the compass and the link between a drone and its controller.

Eric Cheng, director of aerial imaging for DJI, says he suspects he recently lost control of a Phantom over San Francisco Bay because of interference from an underground train tunnel.

Drone makers say fail-safe functions prevent most potential flyaways. The most common is a “return to home” feature that returns the device to its takeoff spot if it loses its connection or has a low battery. But users say that solution doesn’t always work.

Todd Humphreys, an aerospace professor at the University of Texas at Austin who studies drones, blames many flyaways on impatient users who fly their drones before the devices have saved the “home” location.

As a result, if the devices lose connection and try to return home, they revert to a previous takeoff spot, Mr. Humphreys says, “and its grandma’s house half a state away.”


About this article

  • Date: December 12, 2014
  • Publisher:  UAS Vision
  • Source: Wall Street Journal
  • Country: USA
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