Special Topics in Safety Management

Small is Better? UAVs are Getting the Job Done

On April 13, 2017, the United States Air Force dropped a 21,600-pound (lb) Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) bomb—the most powerful nonnuclear bomb available to the U.S. military—on a system of tunnels and caves used by ISIS fighters in Afghanistan. It was the first time the MOAB bomb, which was originally developed in 2002, had been used in combat. But the huge bomb may turn out to be a real dinosaur—as with so many other things, the technological trend is toward miniaturization. In warfare, that means drone-mounted weapons, like the small thermite grenade used by Russia to destroy a Ukrainian ammunition dump just months later in July 2017.

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Drones—more precisely, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)—have a long history of use by the world’s armed forces, but in recent years, the technology has become more affordable and more widely available than in the past. As a result, UAVs are increasingly popular with recreational, government, and commercial users. A new review of drone technology, compiled by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and published in the 2017 issue of the Journal of Industrial Medicine, looks at both the potential hazards and the potential benefits of this emerging technology.

Robots of the Air

UAVs offer many of the benefits of robots combined with the benefits of flight. Many employers have begun using drones in part because they enhance worker safety; they can do tasks that would put people in danger. For this reason, their use is rapidly expanding among:

  • The military. The earliest uses of unmanned aircraft were military, with balloons used to carry bombs. The term “drones” was first used for unmanned aerial vehicles in the mid-20th century by the U.S. Navy. The armed forces use drones for surveillance because they can stay aloft longer than any human pilot and for reconnaissance because they can go into situations where it is too dangerous to send personnel. When UAVs are used to carry ordnance, they can be recovered after their mission is complete, unlike missiles.
  • Recreational users. Model aircraft have been around for a long time, but drones—which can quickly change directions and altitude and hover—are increasingly used for recreational photography. This has led to increased run-ins between recreational users, private property owners, and manned aircraft that are difficult to deal with because the FAA is statutorily prohibited from regulating recreational use of drones. For employers, this may mean that incursions into your own airspace may be difficult to control, raising concerns about both security and safety.
  • Government agencies. Law enforcement agencies and fire departments use drones for border security, surveillance, traffic management, riot control, search-and-rescue operations, tracking firefighters in dangerous settings, crime-scene photography, and mapping hazardous material spills. Police use of UAVs has led to some states requiring police to obtain a warrant before they can use a UAV for a search or surveillance operation.
  • Business users. Employers in construction, agriculture, mining, forestry, warehousing, transportation, the motion picture industry, real estate, and other businesses have a new technology in common: the use of drones for aerial photography and videography. In addition to surveillance, camera-equipped drones can be used for 3D mapping and modeling, pipeline inspection, and the inspection of hazardous waste sites, smokestacks, and communication towers. The payload capacity of drones is being used to deliver medical supplies and retail purchases. Drones are even getting back to their apian roots, becoming robotic “insect” pollinators.

Tomorrow we’ll look more closely at how construction employers are using drones to make some jobs safer and more efficient.