Ginger Pinholster Embry-Riddle

Unmanned aerial systems (UAS) can help locate missing senior citizens, assess damage after big storms and inspect crops, but drones can also pose safety risks if they collide with people.

Rotor Shield LLC, an incubator firm affiliated with Embry-Riddle’s John Mica Engineering and Aerospace Innovation Complex (MicaPlex), has designed patent-pending technology to advance the safe, responsible operation of UAS.

Bob Cooper of Orlando, Fla., launched Rotor Shield and developed the “DroneKone” design, which shields fast-moving UAS propellers, after he was struck in the face by a drone. “I was flying a toy model, not a commercial model, so I wasn’t badly injured,” he said, “but I realized that UAS propellers run between 6,000 and 16,000 revolutions per minute, and they can be dangerous.”

That’s why the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) prohibits hobbyists from flying drones over people. For professional or commercial UAS operators who hold pilot certificates, the FAA grants very few waivers to allow drone flight over people, at night, or beyond the operator’s visual line of sight.

Improving UAS safety is also a primary focus of Embry-Riddle’s work as a technical lead for the FAA’s Alliance of System Safety for UAS through Research Excellence, or ASSURE. As part of one ASSURE project, for example, Embry-Riddle researchers have been quantifying the risk of human injuries that could be caused by a UAS crash while operating over people, said Associate Professor Richard Stansbury, head of the university’s Daytona Beach, Fla.-based Master’s Program in Unmanned and Autonomous Systems Engineering.

To advance UAS business and benefits to society, Cooper said, safer UAS technology will be essential. “Right now, there is zero shielding on drone propellers,” he noted. “My DroneKone design fences off the rotors and propellers inside a kind of clam shell, and it uses a special material that disintegrates or transforms on contact so that the drone can’t hurt anyone if it falls from the sky.”

Through the MicaPlex – the cornerstone building of Embry-Riddle’s Research Park – Cooper has been able to work with Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering Feng Zhu to perfect the DroneKone design. With Zhu, Cooper has also submitted a joint proposal to the National Science Foundation, and he is pursuing investment funding.

Cooper has even earned a letter of support from none other than Embry-Riddle UAS expert Stansbury, who wrote that the DroneKone design “mitigates serious safety issues that are prone with small UAS that are operated by both hobbyists and commercial professionals.”

A self-described “Army brat” who has lived all over the world, from Japan and California to New Mexico, Cooper said the promise of his startup technology keeps him motivated. “I believe if I can save one life, I’ve done something good. At the same time, I want to help the UAS industry evolve by making it possible to fly drones safely over people. That would open up huge new opportunities for many companies.”

By Press