AI News, Why Are Search-and-Rescue Drones Grounded?

Why Are Search-and-Rescue Drones Grounded?

Update (22 April 2014): Texas EquuSearch and Gene Robinson filed suit against the FAA yesterday for prohibiting them from flying their search-and-rescue drones.

About a decade ago, he realized that a model aircraft outfitted to take aerial photos could be enormously useful in locating people who have gone missing—perhaps because they’ve been abducted or maybe just because they are very young and have wandered off into the woods alone.

But Robinson (and othersflying drones for disaster assistance) takes no money from the families seeking their lost loved ones, and he has created a not-for-profit organization, RP Search Services, to demonstrate that he is not running a money-making operation.

He works closely with Texas EquuSearch, another not-for-profit organization that originally enlisted volunteers on horseback to find people who had gone missing in the wilderness and now helps direct volunteer searchers who have many different kinds of skills and specialty equipment to contribute to the effort.

“It is incomprehensible that the FAA would for decades raise no issue with respect to recreational operation of these devices but prohibit and deem ‘illegal’ the exact same use for the purpose of saving the lives of missing children,” Schulman wrote on 17 March to the FAA chief counsel in a lengthy argument on behalf of his clients.

The burgeoning interest in small drones and the plummeting cost of sophisticated sensors and autopilots surely favors such an evolution, and indeed, no one doubts that unmanned aircraft could be a big help in disaster situations.

If the rules place a higher regulatory burden on the manufacturers of the model planes or the people flying them when the activity they are engaged in is not just a casual hobby, this avenue for RC pilots or drone enthusiasts to contribute to their communities could be cut off.

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In February this year, when Robinson and Texas EquuSearch were called to help find a middle-aged man missing from his home in North Texas, he emailed a pal at the FAA.

“On the one hand there may be an opportunity to save somebody’s life using a drone, but on the other hand the federal government has said this is illegal.” For Schulman, who has made it his mission to liberate small-drone pilots from what he sees as the shackles of the FAA, this is his second suit.

So, government groups (like NASA, which owns a Global Hawk and a Predator), police departments (like the Mesa County sheriff’s office in Colorado) universities (like the University of North Dakota or the University of Alaska) and commercial manufacturers apply for a “Certificate of Authorization” from the FAA, describing the location and purpose and time for which the group will operate their drones.

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Affectionately known as the grandfather of drone search and rescue (SAR), Gene Robinson has been flying unmanned aircraft pretty much his whole life, starting out with R/C airplanes and expanding to drones outfitted with cameras and sensors.

Thus, over the years, Robinson says it’s been an education process “the entire time,” from SAR and then to firefighting support, when he says “we discovered that we could be a real significant influence in how decisions were made in the firefighting process.” Continously spreading the knowledge of unmanned aircraft in public safety, Robinson has authored a number of resources used by first response agencies, as well as collaborated with universities across the country on the deployment of drones.

rotating team, including Robinson and DPI’s John Buell, Enrique Flores and Michael Joseph, as well as officials from local fire and police departments – who DPI, as a company that teaches public safety officials how to use of drones, had previously trained – put in 12-hour days from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., says Robinson.

which actually initiated a lawsuit against the FAA for the right to deploy drones after the agency ordered the group to stop – secured an emergency Certificate of Authorization (COA) from the FAA to help locate a missing woman, but it took within 24 hours to obtain.

Drones over US soil: the calm before theswarm

The sudden accessibility of this powerful technology requires new regulations around safety and privacy.

In the absence of a nationwide framework from the FAA, 30 states and numerous cities have introduced their own legislation, which could lead to a patchwork of reactionary and incompatible laws.

When triggered by a motion sensor, or as part of a pre-programmed circuit, the drones will fly out and record video, beaming the footage back to its owner’s computer, smartphone, or tablet.

To this end, he is developing an air code of ethics — don’t spy on others, do not weaponize your drone — which he hopes will become industry standard.

The system, named for the hundred-eyed giant of Greek myth, can track the movements of every vehicle and person in a fifteen square mile radius.

But advocates for this budding industry say that it’s the laws around privacy which should change, rather than instituting new legislation aimed specifically at drones.

'The fact that drones are capable of doing a lot of aerial surveillance at low cost wouldn’t be that big a deal, but for the fact that privacy law largely isn’t up to the task,' says Ryan Calo, a professor of law at the University of Washington.

Calo points to cases like Florida vs Riley, where police used a helicopter to see into a greenhouse through missing panels on a roof, spotted marijuana plants, then used that as evidence to obtain a warrant.

The Supreme Court ruled that the aerial search didn’t violate the defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights, because citizens can have no reasonable expectation of privacy of anything viewable from a public vantage.

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