Two recent, very different, instances of drones deployed in dangerous situations

If you frequently read articles about robots, you may have heard of the “3 D’s,” also known as Dull, Dangerous, and Dirty.

Those are the three big reasons, in a nutshell, why robots are developed by scientists and engineers. Robots allow humans complete dull and repetitive tasks, or help distance people from uncomfortably dirty situations. And, of course, robots can enter dangerously radioactive environments or disable improvised explosive devices.

Drones (aircraft that are remotely controlled) and aerial robots (aircraft that fly with very little or no human input) can also assist in dull or dirty situations, but are perhaps best suited to complete dangerous tasks. The distance an unmanned aircraft provides from a dangerous situation is the reason why so many journalists are experimenting with this technology, especially when it comes disaster reporting.

Case in point: how close can you get to a volcano? If you’re piloting a DJI Phantom quadrotor drone, like the one Shaun O'Callaghan piloted above the Yasur Volcano in the Republic of Vanuatu in the south Pacific, it turns out you can get very, very close.

Apparently a drone can get so close to a volcano that lava and ash can fly past the camera. From O’Callaghan’s uploaded video, it appears he had to take evasive maneuvers from flying volcano ejecta. And yet, the intrepid drone returned unscathed.

I don’t know what lengths O’Callaghan had to go through in order to obtain that stunning video. But contrast his video against this 2012 documentary of an expedition into the Marum Volcano, which lies on a different island within the Republic of Vanuatu.

According to the description on YouTube, researchers were only able to walk within 30 meters of the volcanic lake without breathing apparatus or heat proximity suit. With a drone, however, you can film as long as you have sufficient battery charge. That is, if your drone isn’t obliterated by liquid rock.

O’Callaghan wasn’t a part of a research expedition, or a National Geographic photographer with a support crew. He appears to be an ordinary man aided by a relatively inexpensive piece of equipment, who just so happened to shoot some of the best volcano footage ever recorded.

Now compare O’Callaghan’s footage to the work of a photographer who arrived at another fiery, explosive scene. Wednesday in New York City, a gas explosion leveled two apartment buildings.

According to a New York Times report, firefighters were still attempting to subdue the blaze during that afternoon. Eight people are confirmed dead, five are still missing, and 60 were injured.

It shouldn’t have surprised anyone that at this day and age, at least one person in a city of eight million owned a DJI Phantom, and decided to fly it near the disaster. Below the orbiting news helicopters, and above the heads of the firemen responding to the emergency, the photographer flew his quadrotor.

“I got some good shots that ain’t nobody getting,” the pilot told a reporter for Animal New York.

No doubt Wilson’s images were interesting, and allowed him to observe a dangerous situation from a distance. But the question remains whether the drone pilot made the situation even more dangerous by flying a small remote controlled aircraft above an active emergency, while people were injured, dead, and missing.

The relatively low-cost DJI Phantom is an attractive product for many photographers, but PSDJ members have pointed out its limitations. Drones such as the DJI Phantom use GPS to aid flight and navigation, and cannot accurately determine position or speed without a GPS fix.

Without a fix, pilots have to rely solely on their wits to fly quadrotors, which are notoriously disorienting to fly. It can be difficult to obtain a GPS fix in a city, where buildings act like concrete canyons that block satellite signals. The DJI phantom is not a sophisticated aircraft equipped with multiple redundant systems.

Almost six months ago, an RC enthusiast flew a similar model around Midtown Manhattan, and lost control of his aircraft. It struck a building and fell more than 200 feet, nearly landing on a pedestrian.

Even with a GPS lock, the Phantom is vulnerable to radio interference. The Phantom’s 5.8 GHz control station operates in the same band as wireless routers, cordless phones, wireless intercom systems, and WiFi GoPro cameras, just to name a few.

The ISM band, which includes 5.8 GHz, is as Wired put it “a ghetto for unlicensed wireless transmission.” For devices operating in this range, according to the Federal Communications Commission, “interference must be accepted,” meaning there is no legal recourse for anyone whose devices are being affected by RF noise. 

We can safely assume that an active disaster scene, in the middle of a GPS-limited concrete canyon, dense with radio and microwave-blocking airborne particulate matter, and ringed by crowds of smartphone-wielding onlookers and reporters, is not an ideal environment for a radio-dependent drone.

And what if the aircraft were fall from the sky? A 1.16 kilogram DJI Phantom 2 Vision falling from 121 meters (the prescribed altitude limit for hobby aircraft) would hit a bystander’s head at a speed of 175 kilometers per hour. The force of the impact would be 1375 joules.

According to a 2011 article published in the Journal of Forensic Biomechanics, as little as 80 joules of force could fracture a human skull and kill a person. Working the F = M*A equation in reverse, a DJI Phantom dropped from 26 feet could fatally injure someone.

In an interview for The Daily Beast, I said that journalists should only observe, not interfere with emergency situations such as the Harlem explosion. That story’s writer, Abby Haglage, told me the pilot’s decision to fly near the blast site was influenced by the dismissal of the FAA v Pirker lawsuit.

This might just be the first of many incidents that we have due to a lack of legitimate FAA regulations. Drone journalists need to be sure that when they’re using a drone to separate themselves from a dangerous situation, they’re also not making that situation more dangerous in the process.