Special Topics in Safety Management

Up, Up, and Away! UAVs May Save the Day—But Can They Do It Safely?

What do you get when you combine a small, unmanned remote-controlled aircraft with a functional attachment—a still camera, video camera, or infrared camera; a LiDAR range detection system; or some kind of tool? You get today’s multifunctional unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). They’re faster than a human on foot, more powerful than your digital camera and tablet computer, and they can scale tall buildings in a single bound. Okay, maybe they’re not superheroic, but they are pretty handy to have around.

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But—as happens with many new technologies—the potential applications of UAVs have leaped ahead of our understanding of their potential hazards. According to a new review of UAV technology, compiled by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and published in the 2017 issue of the Journal of Industrial Medicine, it’s vital that employers conduct a thorough risk identification when putting UAVs to work.

Hazard Identification

If you’re considering using drones in your workplace, be aware of the hazards of:

  • Operator stress. The U.S. military has noted that drone operators may experience high levels of stress. In part, this arises from long shifts monitoring a visual display screen. In part it is due to the nature of the job, when drones are used as combat tools, and operators may see people die. This might be an issue in other settings where drones are used to monitor dangerous work, like firefighting and law enforcement.
  • Crashes with people. NIOSH found 30 recorded near-miss or crash incidents involving recreational drone use that resulted in injuries to people. According to NIOSH, factors that can contribute to crash risks include unstable flying conditions, operator errors, and faulty equipment.
  • Crashes with airplanes. A near-miss between a recreational drone and a $250 million F22A Raptor in July 2017 led to new Pentagon rules issued in August 2017 that allow the military to shoot down drones in military airspace. Also in July, reports of a drone sighting at London’s Gatwick airport resulted in the closure of a runway, the rerouting of flights, and delayed takeoffs and landings. The United Kingdom’s Civil Aviation Authority has issued new rules for drone operators as a result of multiple near-misses.
  • Semi-autonomous or autonomous drones. The latest development in robotics and drone technology, programmable drones that are not directly under the control of an operator, may pose a risk to nearby humans.

Tomorrow we’ll look at risk mitigation practices that apply to UAV use.