#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.

The FAA's move was widely positioned in the "let's just not think" Web press as out-of-step regulators getting in the way of a rosy digital future.

But it does not take much flight time to see what the FAA is worried about: Tourist destinations such as Hawaii support large sightseeing flight operations that crowd experimental craft such as ultralights and sport helicopters into cramped and often dangerous airspaces. On Sept. 24, 2004, in Kalaheo, Hawaii, for example, the pilot of a sightseeing air tour flight lost control of his helicopter. Just last week, an ultralight crashed on the smaller island of Kauai, killing two.

"These and other operational issues have led to an unacceptably high number of helicopter accidents," said the National Transportation Safety Board. The agency took the drastic step of putting these types of aircraft on its so-called "Most Wanted List," putting them in the same family of exposure as unsafe pipelines, substance-impaired driving and -- get ready for this, drone fanatics -- distracted driving.

Too crowded for drones?
The thing is, accidents in crowded tourist airspaces such as in Hawaii are not unique. In fact, anywhere flying machines collect in the sky, things go wrong. Yearly aviation meetups such as the Sun 'N Fun International Fly-In & Expo in Lakeland or the Oshkosh Air Show can see total air movements range in the tens of thousands. And there is a long and consistent history of accidents, such as when two experimental warbirds crashed at the end of the runway in 2007 at Oshkosh. And even parked vehicles are a risk: A descending plane hit a stationary truck in 2012.

And let's not forget there is already no shortage of drone failures in the sky. Earlier this year, for example, a GF-4 Air Force drone crashed in White Sands National Monument in New Mexico.

Considering how fast fears about commercial aviation safety have been stoked in the wake of the loss of a single Boeing 777 -- which, by the by, is one of the safest human-made things to ever fly -- imagine the investor exposure when the thousands of experimental drones wanted by companies such as Amazon go into service.

Of all the techno-flights of fancy of this ludicrous Digital Age, commercial drone use has to be the most outlandish -- and dangerous -- of them all.

This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.

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