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Medical Aviation Group Airs Drone Worries

According to the Association of Air Medical Services, a close call in the air highlights the dangers that drones could pose for medical workers during emergency situations.

According to the Association of Air Medical Services, a Pennsylvania close call in the air highlights the danger that unmanned aerial vehicles could pose to medical aircraft and workers in emergency situations.

As the number of near-collisions of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and airliners at U.S. airports rises, the latest one—involving a medical helicopter in Pennsylvania—is raising serious concerns in the medical aviation community.

On November 19, a Life Flight medical helicopter dropped off a patient at the Hershey Medical Center in Danville. When the copter was within 700 feet of landing at the Schuylkill County Joe Zerbey Airport for refueling, it encountered a drone.

“The flight nurse in the copilot seat was the first to see a drone at the 12 o’clock position flying towards the aircraft at a high rate of closure and at their altitude,” a report by the Association of Air Medical Services (AAMS), cited by the Pottsville Republican, stated. “The pilot at this point also made visual contact with the drone and made an evasive right bank turn.”

Such incidents have alerted the Federal Aviation Administration, as well as pilots and drone users, of the dangers UAVs can present. The agency released a November report detailing 25 near-collisions logged since June 1.

A drone can damage a helicopter or plane by hitting a propeller or rotor; it could take out a jet engine if sucked into one.

The risks to medical services flights are great. Hospital aid flights are often made in small helicopters, and collision with a drone could prove deadly. “It wouldn’t take much to bring down a helicopter,” AAMS Government Relations Manager Greg Lynskey told The Washington Post. “If a drone hits the tail rotor, that’d pretty much be it.”

Drone Industry Charges On

FAA rules currently prohibit operators from flying personal drones above 400 feet, and the agency is considering additional regulations.

“There are proponents of unmanned aircraft, and they see huge potential of this technology—and for them, we can’t move fast enough,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said last month, according to Politico. “What they would like to see is free and open use of unmanned aircraft.”

Earlier this year, the agency approved drone testing sites, but industries such as online shopping, journalism, and real estate have been actively pushing for more leeway to use drones for commercial purposes—and, in some cases, bending the rules.

Thus far, the FAA has loosened the regulations only slightly: In September, it approved the use of drones in filmmaking.

Safety is Key

Both sides of the debate agree on one thing: Safety is important. The FAA’s Huerta noted that pilots are “very concerned that [drones] are difficult to see, and they don’t have a really good understanding of how they interact with other aircraft.”

Groups in the drone industry, while pushing for a more open approach, have noted that they, too, want to ensure safety—which is why standards matter.

“We all want the ability to operate commercially, and we all want to operate safely and responsibly while doing so,” lawyer Peter Sacks of the Drone Pilot Association said.

AAMS officials want to make one thing clear: When attending to a medical emergency and treating a patient, the last thing medical personnel want to encounter is another danger.

“I’m hoping this can get worked out before we have a catastrophic incident,” Lynskey said.

(iStock/Thinkstock)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. MORE

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