Saturday, December 31, 2016

Drones concern for air ambulance pilots, delay transit


Attack of the drones? It can feel that way considering how many there are these days.

Drones were a top Christmas gift this year. But even before that, in April retail experts at the NPD Group estimated drones sales skyrocketed compared to the previous year, up 224 percent to nearly $200 million.

For hobbyists, they're super fun. For others, including air ambulance pilots, they're super dangerous.

"If we run into it, it could cost us our lives," said Eugene Harvey, a pilot of the University of Iowa's AirCare chopper.

Though the UI team hasn't had a drone encounter to date, it's likely only a matter of time. Despite Federal Aviation Administration drone restrictions near airports and at certain altitudes, air ambulances fly lower than most aircraft and often fly in rural areas where drone limits are reduced.

"My concern: You can't see them," said Harvey. "We're usually cruising at 140 mph. If we run into one, it'd be pretty bad. Like hitting a big pelican."

Like many air ambulance teams, the UI team has started a "see and avoid" drone policy. If a pilot spots one, he will change course, won't land or will wait to take off. That can delay a patient's care.

"We've had many reports of aircraft being delayed in transport," said Rick Sherlock, who heads the Association of Air Medical Services, a national advocacy group for air ambulances.

The nonprofit recently proposed a list of tighter drone restrictions to give helicopter pilots more breathing room. The restriction include: no drones within 5 miles of any emergency incident, no recording of patients without consent and required tech upgrades, allowing pilots to better spot drones.

"I'm optimistic that it could happen within the next year," said Sherlock. "Certainly there will be a lot more discussion about UAVs,UASs, drones."

U.S. legislators will likely take a closer look at drone rules in 2017 as they discuss extending the FAA's reauthorization bill, which gives the group its legal power. The current legislation is set to expire at the end of next September.

If drone rules change further, almost everyone admits enforcement will be tough. The FAA threatens fines or imprisonment for breaking current regulations, but it's really up to drone users to stay legal.


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