Tools of the Trade: Drones for the 21st Century Investigator

By Bill English

Throughout its history, the NTSB has prided itself on staying on the cutting edge of transportation technology. One of the most revolutionary changes ever to come about in aviation is the recent explosive growth—in number and capability—of unmanned aircraft systems (UASs), or drones. Last year, the number of registered UASs exceeded the number of manned aircraft. Nothing has drawn as much attention in aviation as the UAS revolution.

CBP MQ-9 crash near Nogales, Arizona, in 2006
CBP MQ-9 crash near Nogales, Arizona, in 2006

This phenomenon didn’t surprise us at the NTSB. Our first occasion to investigate a UAS accident came in 2006, with the crash of a Customs and Border Protection Predator-B MQ-9 near Nogales, Arizona. That investigation gave us a glimpse into the future of civil commercial drone use. In 2008, we held a public forum on UASs. Soon after, we officially acknowledged that UASs represented an expansion of the aviation world that we needed to thoroughly understand.

My entry into the world of UASs began with a side task: learn enough to update Title 49 USC Part 830. We published a revised regulation in August 2010, clarifying the NTSB’s role in investigating UAS accidents. The revision remains valid today, even with all the changes in the industry, and so far, civil, nonhobbyist UASs have a very good record: at the time of this writing, they have caused zero serious injuries and resulted in zero confirmed collisions.

NTSB in vestigators using a UAS to inspect an inflight breakup
Using a UAS to inspect an inflight breakup

The NTSB began experimenting with small UAS (sUAS) technology that could support on-scene accident investigation in 2013. By 2015, we had taken the first real steps toward using UASs to support multimodal accident documentation, obtaining authorization to research sUAS methods and to fly in the DC Special Flight Rules Area, and we began test flights. In early 2016, we started the process of obtaining a public agency Certificate of Authorization (COA) and also began procedures to expedite access to controlled airspace. In April, we made our first flights over an accident site under the COA.

We kept up with the quickly expanding rules for flying small UASs. The FAA published the sUAS Part 107 regulation in August 2016, and we were one of the first in line for a Part 107 certificate. Since then, we’ve developed Federal Flight Program documentation and procedures, conducted more deployments, and obtained our “flagship” drone, a DJI Inspire.

Overhead image of accident site taken by UAS.
With photogrammetry, an orthomosaic can be created in less than an hour.

As we started to gather information and gain experience with drones, we quickly realized that sUASs and their associated technology—small, high-resolution cameras and processing software—would be great tools for NTSB investigations. One such use of this technology is photogrammetry, which, using pixels from multiple photos of an object or area, creates a 3-D model or an orthomosaic (a map with geographical coordinates throughout). We know the value of aerial photographs; there is hardly a major NTSB accident report without an aerial image in it. But with a drone, we can now take high-quality photos, our investigators can specify the most important points of view, and we can immediately review the results. We can re-fly an approach path to view witness marks or runway alignment and quickly obtain high-quality photos of hard-to-access areas (for example, a plane crash into a building that our investigators cannot safely enter).

3-D model of a collapsed rail terminal
3-D model of a collapsed rail terminal

Photogrammetry, especially when it’s enabled by digital GPS-referenced photos, is the real game changer. Gone are the days of hunting through dozens of photos for just the right point of view, or scribbling down a few GPS points and hoping you took the right measurements. Orthomosaic maps and 3-D models let you go back for whatever you need. Our team continues to deploy to accident sites in aviation and rail, and we can now can deploy a drone to an accident site on request—with our COA approval, we can even get the OK to fly in controlled airspace within hours—and our photogrammetry-trained staff continues to grow. Every time we document an accident site, we learn more and get better at using the equipment and techniques.

NTSB investigators involved in photogrammetry training
Photogrammetry training

We intend to keep growing the UAS program and the ability to bring in external partners. Building this program has had an unanticipated side benefit: To operate the drone, which is an aircraft by all definitions, we developed a flight program following the Interagency Committee for Aviation Policy template. Now, anyone who wants to be involved in any aspect of flight operation—whether it be by putting together safety and operational procedures, developing training and standardization, or carrying out safety reporting/SMS activities—has a way to participate in our own little flight department!

NTSB investigators use a UAS for a high-elevation search
High-elevation search

As we grow in our knowledge of UASs, we’re able to maintain our high investigative standards in an expanding segment of aviation and improve our investigative techniques, giving our investigators an opportunity for hands-on experience.

Bill English is an Investigator-in-Charge in the NTSB’s Major Investigations Division and leads the UAS program. He is a current CFI-I who holds an FAA remote pilot certificate and a graduate certificate in geospatial intelligence.

When Safety Should Take the Back Seat

By Vice Chairman T. Bella Dinh-Zarr, PhD, MPH

Image collage for strengthen occupant protection Most Wanted List Issue.As a public health professional, I have spent my career working in the United States and internationally to prevent injuries and deaths. At the NTSB, one of my primary roles is to advocate for the changes needed to prevent transportation accidents.

Significant advancements have been made to improve the safety of occupants in the front seats of passenger vehicles, including the development of advanced restraint and airbag systems, safer seat designs, and structural improvements to minimize injury due to intrusion. Today, 32 states have adopted legislation that requires front-seat passengers to use a seat belt, and we can celebrate that we have achieved a national daytime average seat-belt-use rate of 90 percent for front-seat passengers.

But what about rear seats? We have not seen similar technology advances in rear seats, and research shows that rear seat belt use is considerably lower, at 83 percent. How can research, engineering, and advocacy make an impact in increasing rear seat belt use?

In 2015, after decades of decline, the United States experienced the largest increase in motor vehicle crashes and resulting deaths. Another historic increase is expected for 2016.  In examining such a complex issue, we at the NTSB found ourselves asking the following: why aren’t people buckling up when they sit in the rear seat, and how can research, engineering, and advocacy increase rear seat belt use?

To answer these questions, we reached out to occupant protection experts drawn from the auto industry, the research community, safety advocates, and the government to participate in a workshop to help us find ways to strengthen occupant protection in the rear seat of passenger vehicles.

During the workshop, we discussed the current knowledge about rear seat occupants in motor vehicle crashes, and how these occupants utilize existing vehicle safety systems, such as seat belts.  We examined how the rear seat environment is different from the front, both in design and user demographics. The workshop also addressed advanced vehicle and emerging seat belt technologies, innovative seat designs, as well as areas of needed research and education.

Our workshop was designed to allow the sharing of experience and knowledge, as well as to encourage participants to collaborate on inventive strategies. As a result, in the detailed summary we are publishing today, participants identified short- and long-term goals that will require a greater amount of collaboration, engineering, design, and advocacy to achieve.

Together with researchers, automobile manufacturers, legislators, regulators, and safety advocates, we are identifying practical, real-world applications and opportunities to make rear seats safer for everyone.

For more information about the workshop, presentations and the summary document visit https://www.ntsb.gov/news/events/Pages/2016_rss_WS.aspx.

The Best Defense is a Good Offense

By Leah Walton

Super Bowl LI is Sunday, and the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons undoubtedly have their game plans in place.

What’s your game plan?Graphic: choose one: Drink or Drive

The players aren’t the only ones that need to be prepared on game day. Fans at the NRG Stadium in Houston, at Super Bowl parties, and at sports bars must have their transportation plans lined up before kickoff to ensure a safe and enjoyable day.

Super Bowl Sunday is thought of by some as a national holiday, and, like many other holidays in the United States, many Americans celebrate with food, friends, and alcohol. This means that, like other holidays, we often see an increase in alcohol-impaired motor vehicle fatalities. Such a day of healthy competition, camaraderie, and celebration should not end in tragedy due to something that’s 100% preventable.

That’s why I say the best defense is a good offense—not only for football players, but also for fans. And a fan’s defense on Super Bowl Sunday should be to choose—in advance—to either drive or drink, but never both. Impairment begins with the first drink, and taking a chance on driving because you “only had a few” is a risky play that could endanger your life and the lives of others.

By designating a sober driver as a key part of the game-day festivities, safety is increased and the likelihood of being in a crash is significantly reduced. Sometimes everyone wants to celebrate, and that’s OK, as long as everyone has a sober ride home. In this day and age, there are many ways to get home safely, whether by taxi, public transportation, or by using NHTSA’s Safer Ride app. Or, go for the MVP title this year and volunteer to be the designated sober driver for your squad, making sure everyone arrives safely at their destination postgame. That’s a guaranteed win!

Remember: you can drink responsibly, you can drive responsibly, but you can never drink and drive responsibly. Make your choice, stick with it, and enjoy the game!

What’s your teen’s sleep routine?

By Stephanie Shaw

Sleep Duration RecommendationsIf you’ve spent any time with parents of infants or toddlers, you know that their lives likely revolve around the napping and bedtime schedule of their child. During those early years of life, caregivers make their children’s sleep a priority. We have special nighttime routines to ensure that young kids are relaxed and ready for a restful night’s sleep. Some of us even celebrate as if we’ve just won the lottery when our kids finally sleep through the night.

But as our children get older, getting a full night’s sleep just isn’t the priority it once was—for us or for them. Years pass, and before we know it, that small child is suddenly a teen. But that teen still has special sleep needs on top of a greater exposure to risk.

On March 20, 2016, four teens were traveling home from a weekend trip at South Padre Island, Texas. At about 1:57 pm, the driver lost control of the car, crossed the center median, entered the opposing lanes of traffic, and collided with a truck-tractor semitrailer. The driver was seriously injured and her three friends died.

NTSB investigators learned that, in the 24 hours before the crash, the driver had very little opportunity for sleep: only about 5 hours on the morning of the crash. The crash also happened at a time of day when most people commonly experience a dip in alertness and performance; in fact, the three passengers in the car were all either asleep or dozing at the time of the crash. The Board determined that that the driver’s loss of control was due to inattention resulting from her fatigue.

Young drivers (ages 16 to 24) are at the greatest risk for being involved in a drowsy driving crash. Teens need 8 to 10 hours of sleep per night. A recent AAA Foundation study looking at drivers of all ages found that losing just 2 to 3 hours of sleep in one night can significantly elevate crash risk. Attention, reaction time, and decision-making can all be affected. For teens, getting 7 or fewer hours of sleep increases the likelihood that they will engage in high-risk behaviors, like not wearing a seat belt or drinking and driving.

When my son was a teen driver, I made sure to talk to him about the dangers of underage drinking, driving distracted, and driving with his friends in the car. I reminded him often to wear his seatbelt—his best defense in the event of a crash. But I never talked to him about the dangers of drowsy driving. Like most high school students, he had a full schedule—early mornings for class, practice or games every day after school, homework and studying. And that didn’t include the time he spent with friends. Time for sleep was not high on his list of priorities.

In our 24/7 culture, many parents also fail to make sleep a priority, but let’s take the time to teach our teens to prioritize it! It’s important that teens get 8 to 10 hours of good-quality sleep; so, just like when they were little, help them create a good sleep environment, free from electronic devices. Talk with teens about planning for a safe ride to and from school and activities if they have a late night studying or an early-morning event to get to.

As our teens inch closer and closer to adulthood, avoiding drowsy driving is one more life lesson we can instill in them so that they remain safe until they are out on their own—and beyond.

Stephanie Shaw is a Safety Advocate in the NTSB Office of Safety Recommendations and Communications.

Fahrenheit 1,100: Lithium Batteries in Aviation

By Robert L. Sumwalt

There is no place for a fire on an airplane. And if there is a fire, it should not overwhelm fire-suppression equipment.

No-brainer, right?

Poster image for Most Wated List issue area Ensure the Safe Shipment of Hazardous MaterialsHere is another no-brainer: lightweight, portable energy is necessary for our modern way of life. Smartphones, laptops, power tools, and even some vehicles depend on lithium batteries. The ubiquitous nature of these modern electronic devices has, in turn, increased the need to ship the batteries that power them.

The same high-energy density that makes lithium batteries such a great way to store electricity can also introduce a fire hazard. A fault in the battery, such as a flaw in the manufacturing process, can cause a fire. Even if a fire starts elsewhere, a lithium battery makes for formidable fuel. When a fire spreads from cell to cell within a lithium-ion battery, it can burn at 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit.

While international air regulations prohibit bulk shipment of lithium batteries on passenger airplanes, the NTSB investigated one cargo aircraft fire in the U.S., and we participated in two foreign-led accident investigations of cargo aircraft where lithium battery fires were suspected.

In late 2010, UPS flight 006 crashed minutes after takeoff from Dubai, UAE. The crew reported an onboard fire but was unable to land their 747 before fire consumed the aircraft. Both crewmembers lost their lives, and the aircraft and cargo was destroyed. The investigation found that a large fire that developed in palletized cargo on the main deck caused the crash. This cargo consisted of consignments of mixed cargo that included a significant number of lithium-type batteries and other combustible materials. The fire escalated rapidly into a catastrophic uncontained fire. The hazardous smoke and fumes entered the cockpit and upper deck simultaneously, obscuring the crew’s view and creating a toxic environment.

Ten months later, Asiana Airlines flight 991, a 747 cargo flight, crashed on its way from Incheon, South Korea, to Shanghai, China. The two pilots on board the aircraft died. The NTSB assisted Korea’s Aviation and Railway Accident Investigation Board (ARAIB) in investigating the crash. The ARAIB determined that a cargo fire that developed on or near two pallets containing dangerous goods (hazardous materials), including hybrid-electric vehicle lithium-ion batteries and flammable liquids, caused the crash. The ARAIB could not pinpoint the cause of the fire, but it determined that the flammable materials and lithium-ion batteries that were loaded together were a contributing factor.

This year, we recommended that the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) take action in response to the 2011 crash. We asked PHMSA to take the following steps:

PHMSA has suggested other actions that could also meet our intent. Whatever solution

PHMSA develops, U.S. aviation cannot ignore this potential hazard.

Thankfully, lithium battery failures are rare, and new research and meaningful efforts are underway to make them rarer still. On April 11 and 12, 2013, we conducted a public forum on lithium battery safety. Since then, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), in conjunction with the Commercial Aviation Safety Team, has established a joint government–industry working group. The group is developing ways to make lithium battery fires less likely in aviation and to reduce the consequences in case they do occur.

We have issued several other lithium battery-related safety recommendations to the FAA and PHMSA encouraging them to share critical safety lessons learned, implement mitigations, and conduct research into safety improvements. Other NTSB recommendations about the certification and testing of lithium batteries aim to make such fires less likely.

We continue to share our lithium battery investigation findings and advocate safety recommendations. We participate in the UL-initiated Battery Safety Council and attend industry outreach events and seminars, such as the NASA battery forum and seminars from the Knowledge Foundation.

Lithium batteries are not going away; they are far too useful. But we must ensure that each and every shipment of lithium batteries poses minimal safety risk. That is why our Most Wanted List calls on regulators and others to Ensure the Safe Shipment of Hazardous Materials, including lithium batteries in aviation.

#NoExcuses This New Year’s Eve

By Leah Walton 

By now, you likely have your New Year’s Eve plans in place. Maybe you’ll go to a big party. Perhaps you’ll meet friends at a local bar or host a small gathering at your house. Maybe you’ll just spend a quiet night in. But whatever your plan may be, if it involves alcohol or other drugs, it should also involve a sober ride home.

Most of us know someone whose life has been impacted by an impaired-driving crash. These accidents occur at an alarmingly high frequency and yet, they’re totally preventable.

Data show that impaired-driving crashes occur more frequently over weekends, on holidays, and at night. This New Year’s holiday falls on a weekend, making it likely that we’ll see a higher-than-usual number of impaired-driving crashes—a very tragic start to 2017.

impaired2According to a recent report by the National Safety Council, we can expect to see more than 360 crash fatalities over this 3-day New Year’s holiday period. According to a report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, about 40 percent of all fatalities during the Christmas and New Year holiday periods have occurred in crashes in which at least one of the drivers was alcohol impaired. That means that approximately 145 people could be killed from drunk driving over this New Year’s weekend.

Let’s not accept this gloomy statistic.

On the eve of 2017, there really are no excuses to operate a vehicle while impaired, or to travel in a vehicle operated by an impaired person. The truth is, impairment starts with the first drink. With the ability to easily find a ride with a few swipes of our phones, and the wide availability of public transportation and sober ride programs on nights when drunk driving crashes are at their highest, there’s no reason for anyone to drive impaired.

Since the 1980s, transportation safety advocates have been working tirelessly through education programs, increased enforcement, strengthened legislation, and emerging technology, such as breathalyzers, to stop impaired driving. And, without a doubt, improvements have been made. In the early ‘80s, more than 21,000 people were killed each year as a result of alcohol-impaired driving. In 2015, that number was down to about 10,265. Lives have been saved because of improvements in safety culture and safety technology.

However, even with that improvement, every impaired driving death is still unacceptable, because, in the end, it’s a decision, not an accident.

No one goes out on New Year’s Eve expecting to die or be injured in an impaired-driving crash. New Year’s Eve is about celebrating the close of one year and welcoming the hopes of a new year ahead. Everyone has the ability to experience the new year when they make plans to get home safely, whether that means driving sober or designating a sober driver.

impairedIt is our hope at NTSB that everyone will make it home safely and that no one will have to start the new year off with a phone call that a loved one was killed in an impaired-driving crash. Let’s prove the statistics wrong, because, nowadays, there really are #NoExcuses for driving impaired.

Leah Walton is a safety advocate in NTSB’s Safety Advocacy Division.

 

Looking for Leaders

By Nicholas Worrell

nbcslI recently spoke to a group of student leaders at the National Black Caucus of State Legislators (NBCSL) 40th Annual Legislative Conference. My audience was full of sharp young people who were eager to learn, succeed, and lead.

I had gone to talk about safety—especially transportation safety—as it affects both our personal lives and our public policy. But I knew that this driven group would want to a leadership lesson, as well. According to business writer John C. Maxwell, “A leader is one who knows the way, shows the way, and goes the way.” Undoubtedly, the biggest transportation safety challenge for youth drivers today is one of leadership, and safety is often a matter of finding one young person to stand up and say “no.” Driving while distracted? No. Driving while impaired? No. Driving while fatigued? No. That one young leader must then encourage others to make the same commitments, and on and on.

More than 35,000 people are killed every year in motor vehicle crashes. From childhood through young adulthood and into middle age, the most likely way for any of us to die is on our roads and highways, and the vast majority of these crashes are preventable. However, making the choice to say “no” to unsafe driving requires a behavioral change in American drivers, especially young ones. Teens and young adults often take their cues from whatever seems normal among their friends. They tend to “go with the flow.” That’s why it’s so important for us to educate and influence young leaders who can take charge and redirect unsafe trends among their peer group. We need to inform the new generation of leaders.

The young leaders at the NBCSL Youth Congress are ready and willing to change the world. My message to them was that they could make a big impact by acting as leaders in transportation safety. Martin Luther King Jr. once wrote, “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” In the same way, for the 35,000 people who die on our roads every year, safety too long delayed is safety denied. I encouraged my young audience to step up to the challenge, not only to be futures leaders, but to be transportation safety leaders today, because the life that they save might be their own.

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