Drone driver licenses? How to make flying robots safe for American skies

(10/11/2013) Cameron Rose, of UC Berkeley Biomimetric Millisys Lab, catches a drone resembling a bird at the DARC conference's AfterDARC session in NY...

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.

“We cleaned up the blood and just kept going,” Davey Orgill, the photographer — who had been filming the bride- and groom-to-be on Aug. 1 on a grassy field near La Barge, Wyo. — told NBC News. After the wedding, with the couple’s permission, he uploaded the fateful shot to YouTube where it’s been viewed more than 1 million times.

In Manhattan, in October, a pedestrian narrowly missed a collision with a Phantom quadcopter when it landed on the sidewalk as he walked past Grand Central Station. Early in September, in a far more sobering incident, a 19-year-old hobbyist pilot was killed when his remotely operated helicopter hit him on the head during a flight in a park in Brooklyn.

Hobbyist drone pilots will tell you that small drones are notoriously temperamental and accident-prone. Community discussion forums are filled with crash-related queries, and YouTube documents ample evidence of camera-carrying quadcopters or hexacopters getting tangled up in trees and toppling to the ground.

“In the late 1920s, aircrafts were still failing out of the sky left and right,” Missy Cummings, who studies drones and autonomous systems at MIT, said at a panel discussion at the Drones and Aerial Robotics Conference (DARC) in New York on Saturday. Today, drone technology is at the same place.

Before company-operated drones are integrated into U.S. airspace in 2015, as the Federal Aviation Administration’s Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 mandates, safety regulation is one of hurdles the FAA will need to clear. A panel of experts at DARC agreed that before drones become a daily sighting, technology and humans both need to start behaving just a little bit better.

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