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TheStreet Open House

#DigitalSkeptic: Drones Delivery Face Flight Risk Reality

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and anybody else talking up remote-controlled flying drones may want to hop a flight to Hawaii. Or Lakeland, Fla. Or Oshkosh, Wis. Or anywhere else lots and of things fly in the sky. Because by any real measure, experimental aircraft such as drones are years away from meeting the risks of real-world flight.

Now that the growing mystery surrounding Malaysia Flight 370 has heightened your investor's sense of the risks of air travel, may I direct you to the popular -- but surprisingly rarely talked about -- world of experimental aircraft.

"Whatever it takes to stand in the footsteps of Orville and Wilbur ... if only for a moment" is how the Experimental Aircraft Association, a Oshkosh-based nonprofit support organization, sums up the experimental flying craft vibe.

Without a doubt, the 33,000 experimental aircraft the association says were in the air in 2012 are true wonders of human ingenuity and innovation. I would happily park an all-wood Osprey Pereira GP-4 speed plane or an AutoGyro MTO personal helicopter in my backyard. And there is real science in experimentals. The Rutan Voyager, which rightfully hangs in the Smithsonian as the first thing to fly around the globe nonstop, really is nothing more than a home-built experimental flying project by a really smart guy named Dick Rutan.

These experimental flying machines share the same technologies of lightweight construction and alternative propulsion that drones use. So surveying this extended flying-machines family is a fair census for the craft Bezos and Zuckerberg bet will revolutionize retail product delivery.

No more -- or less -- dangerous than other planes.
It doesn't take a Ph.D. in aviation engineering to see experimental aircraft are no more or less safe often than other planes. They crash. And fairly often. FAA data show roughly 60 fatal accidents annually in the home-built aviation category alone from 1991 through 2011. And risks are rising to the point where regulators are taking increased notice of experimentals.

"The FAA continues to monitor fatal accident totals involving the Experimental category aircraft," Rod Hightower, then president of the EAA, wrote in his 2012 annual statement.

And the FAA is making it clear that automated flying drones will be a significant part of the focus on safety with experimental aircraft. As was widely reported this year, Minnesota-based Lakeland Craft Beer had its trial flying beer drone delivery program quashed by the FAA, citing regulations over flying in unregulated airspace.

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