Until North America has the right technology with the right regulations in place, digital health drones may not be cleared for takeoff just yet.
You may recall that I wrote recently about two companies on either side of the Atlantic that are working in the area of digital health drones. One of the companies has already produced a “flying defibrillator” while the other is working on a “flying ambulance” that could literally land at the scene of a car accident, extract the injured and fly them to hospital.
These are just two examples of the exciting future that lies ahead for the application of drones in the digital health space; that is if the right conditions are put in place.
Think about it.
What are two of the most heavily regulated sectors of our society, due to their impact on human health and safety?
Health and aviation.
In order for commercial drones to fly safely and legally in North America, whether they’re used to deliver pizzas, prescriptions or life-saving critical care, there are five basic considerations that must be taken into account, says Brigadier-General (Ret’d) Gaston Cloutier, a retired Royal Canadian Air Force search and rescue pilot with 6,000 flying hours and Director General of the Gatineau Ottawa Executive Airport in Gatineau, Quebec.
Cloutier receives requests regularly from individuals and companies wanting to fly drones at his airport
In order for any type of aircraft to fly, be it a commercial drone or jetliner, proper legislation must be in place. Transport Canada, the regulating authority for aviation in Canada, has a series of drone regulations in place—while the Federal Aviation Authority in the US recently amended its commercial drone regulations.
Both the Canadian and American drone regulations only allow drones of a certain size to fly at certain times and away from airports and open air stadia, for example. In the US, currently “carrying persons or property for compensation or hire is prohibited.”
2. Flight safety
Anything that flies must be regulated in order to protect the safety of people and property in the air and on the ground. Basic principles of flight safety would have to be applied to the use of commercial (and recreational) drones to ensure this happens. Transport Canada and the FAA have created robust flight safety information of commercial drones on their respective websites, which are worth taking a look at.
Aside from drone pilots needing operator certificates, drone manufacturers (along with other aircraft manufacturers) must be licensed to build drones in order for the drones to be compliant with Transport Canada and FAA specifications and regulations. This ensures the highest standards of airworthiness and flight safety are met, which in turn protects us.
4. Collision avoidance systems
One of the basic principles of aviation is “See and be seen.” North American drone regulations currently only allow for “line of sight” flying, meaning the drone must be within the operator’s line of sight for it to be flown legally and safely.
Anything beyond that would require some kind of Collision Avoidance System built into the drone so operators could adjust the speed, altitude and direction of the drone to avoid a collision. It's interesting to note that one reason Amazon’s Prime Air local delivery drone doesn't meet current US regulations is because the drones would fly out of the line of sight—which is why the company notes that further development is needed to meet FAA regulations.
5. Black box
Having a built-in black box or flight recorder aboard a commercial drone would allow investigators to reconstruct an aircraft incident in the event of an accident.
I think initially what we’re looking at are operations for many industries that are away from populations. I don't think we’re necessarily looking at urban applications right away.
My concern is that there will be people entering the UAS business who are attracted by the potential economics. This really requires aggressive monitoring and enforcement by the FAA to insure that the rules are observed.
So while we may not see flying ambulances just yet, it’s clear from the growing popularity of drones for everything from photography to real estate, North American airspace is set to become a lot more crowded in the years to come.
Even President Barrack Obama weighed in on commercial drones after the FAA released its updated rules and regulations last month, referring to potential uses by the digital health industry. Perhaps his comments were prompted in part by the Jan 2015 drone that landed on the White House front lawn.
Drones "are a potentially transformative technology in diverse fields such as agriculture, law enforcement, coastal security, military training, search and rescue, first responder medical support, critical infrastructure inspection and many others," according to a White House statement. "The administration is committed to promoting the responsible use of this technology, strengthening privacy safeguards and ensuring full protection of civil liberties.
According to the Association of Unmanned Vehicles International, which represents 7,500 members in 60 countries, the drone, or UAV, industry has the potential to create 70,000 jobs worldwide with $13.5B in economic benefits worldwide, if the proper regulations are in place.