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When drones fall from the sky

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

A frightening incident earlier this year in Switzerland now serves as a reminder of why we need to know more about the safety of urban delivery drones.

Driving the news: A malfunctioning drone operated by Swiss Post plummeted to the ground near Zurich, narrowly missing a group of kindergarten children, according to IEEE Spectrum.

  • The drone's emergency parachute failed after the line snagged on a sharp edge of the drone itself, causing the 22-pound device to fall quickly from the sky, a preliminary report found.
  • Swiss Post suspended the service indefinitely and called on the manufacturer, Mountain View, California-based Matternet, to make safety improvements before it could resume flying.

In a statement, Matternet said it had never seen its parachute system fail.

"At Matternet we take the safety of our technology and operations extremely seriously. A failure of the parachute system is a clear failure of our safety mechanisms and we are taking all the appropriate measures to address it."

What we're watching: The number of drones is expected to soar across multiple industries in the next few years, but only if they're proven safe.

  • In the U.S., the Federal Aviation Administration is weighing proposed rule changes that would allow drones to fly over people and at night — two circumstances that are currently prohibited without a waiver.
  • A series of pilot projects are underway in several states that aim to demonstrate how drones could be operated safely.

The bottom line: Drones have almost unlimited uses — delivering everything from medicine to pizza to inspecting infrastructure, such as pipelines and buildings. But regulators must ensure they're safe before people will accept them.