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Quadcopter is the last hit among professional photographers. They use the unmanned platform to take wedding and other event photos from “exotic” angles. Only recently in the U.S., a romantic pre-wedding photo shoot turned sour when the photographer’s camera-equipped quadcopter swerved out of control and hit the groom on the head.

According to NBC News small drones like quadcopters can be bought online, and adding warnings to the bots could be an easy first step. “The DJI Phantom doesn’t come with a label saying, ‘Hey, this could hurt someone,” Mike Winn, a founder of DroneDeploy, a company that is building autonomous control platforms, said. “It’s like buying a model race car.” In other words, there’s no lengthy list of all the damage it can do. One way to assure a minimum level of competence could be pre-use certification, a “driver license” of sorts for pilots who fly the birds.

DJI Phantomץ Photo: DJI
DJI Phantom. Photo: DJI

Operators of small military drones like Ravens are trained before they can use them, and Capt. Adam Gorrell — who trained drone pilots and flew them himself in the U.S. Air Force, before becoming a professor at the Air Force Academy — sees a similar training system working for domestic operators, too. A different, smaller craft perhaps wouldn’t need the same amount of training time, but the “mark in the sand” for flight readiness could shift accordingly, he said.

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The Northeast UAS Airspace Integration Research Alliance (NUAIR), a New York and Massachusetts coalition applying to be a drone test site that will help the FAA form its safety regulations, is considering including pre-flight training for emergency responders at its base in Syracuse, N.Y. This could equip firefighters and police to deploy the crafts safely and quickly, Andrea Bianchi, a representative of the NUAIR said.

An RIT UAV. RIT is part of the NUAIR coalition. Photo: NUAIR.
An RIT UAV. RIT is part of the NUAIR coalition. Photo: NUAIR.

Classifying the crafts by weight could help regulators come up with an effective safety strategy, several panelists agreed. Small drones range from a few grams in weight to several pounds. Just as driver licenses are distinguished by vehicle class – trucks or limos or motorbikes or cars – it makes sense to separate the qualifications for drone users, too. The safety risk they pose differs depending on their size, Winn, of DroneDeploy, pointed out. “You can’t lump everything together.”

Just like cars are getting lane departure warnings, proximity sensors and adaptive cruise control, drones will eventually get detect-and-avoid technologies, which will give them the smarts to dodge a bird or another craft in its path. The commercial applications aren’t quite ready, but mapping and sensing technologies for small drones is progressing quite briskly in research labs.