It wasn’t all that long ago that only manned aircraft populated the skies. Today, however, it’s a totally different story.
Drones — formally known as small unmanned aerial systems (sUAS) — have exploded in popularity over the past few years and there are no signs of slowing down.
Professionals in industries such as agriculture, mapping, aerial photography, and many others are deploying innovative ways to maximize their efficiency with these new sUAS technologies.
Another group of drone operators fly primarily for fun and recreation. While flying drones is a wonderful hobby, there are less rules and regulations placed on these hobbyists. That’s led to a number of incidents concerning safety, which has been less than pleasing to manned aircraft pilots. And rightfully so.
Speaking with several manned aircraft pilots and an FAA official regarding the real-world goings on of drones now sharing the National Airspace System gives perspective to the concerns manned aircraft pilots have.
The first topic that always seems to come up is safety.
The expected questions, such as “when there is an impact with an airplane or helicopter” or “when a drone falls on someone,” are valid concerns. There are fundamental reasons underpinning this concern, mainly related to the amount of skill and experience drone operators have.
Consider the training and certifications that a manned pilot must achieve before taking flight. Obviously airplanes and helicopters are complicated machines requiring an excellent grasp of their mechanical operation, not to mention flight rules and procedures.
Drones are also quite technically sophisticated and carry their own set of complicated procedures, but the physical risk is obviously lower to the remote pilot. Unfortunately, this also can create a complacent attitude for some remote pilots.
Skill levels vary between all pilots, manned or remote. Typically, manned aircraft pilots are considerably more invested even at a basic level, and rightfully so considering that they will actually be onboard the aircraft they are piloting.
While losing a drone may cost you a few dollars, chances are much less physically risky to the remote pilot. In fact, careless or uncontrolled operation is more likely to present unexpected risks to other aircraft and civilians.
One pilot I interviewed mentioned the ease of someone being able to walk into a big box electronics store and buy a drone for a few hundred dollars that will easily fly right into shared airspace.
With virtually no guidance to essential beginner-level information, such as Know Before You Fly or FAA Dronezone — much less mentioning the need to register your new drone if it meets the minimum weight requirement of .55 pounds — the sales people at these stores simply do not express the importance of responsible flying. They sell drones to the public much the same way they would a flat screen TV.
Being fair, most people, whether recreational of professional Part 107 remote pilots, want to do the right thing to avoid causing problems or accidents.
Still, there are always the ones who have the “it won’t happen to me” mindset that manned aircraft pilots are concerned about.
Generally, new drone owners are not aware of what it takes to properly get going and this opens the door for mistakes to happen.
Another pilot I spoke with told me he had a near miss on approach a couple years back at roughly 1,300’ AGL. This is clearly beyond the allowed ceiling for sUAS operation, yet this is not the only time this has happened.
It only takes a minute to browse through YouTube or Facebook to see an unfortunately high number of these irresponsible drone operators showboating by flying in any number of illegal ways, such as flying over people or higher than allowed.
Then there are the people flying drones for business, such as taking real estate photos, who choose to fly without obtaining their Part 107 certification. This carelessness is foolish on the part of the operator and does nothing to help the professionalism that many Part 107 drone operators do, in fact, exhibit.
Perceptions and Realities
Both sides of this discussion come loaded with their own set of perceptions and realities.
Many manned aircraft operators that I spoke with are fine with the new influx of drones in the airspace, but with the condition that they are being operated responsibly and that the remote pilots understand the rules and etiquette of sharing the same skies.
One pilot brought up a good word to sum things up: Maturity. Not so much in age, but in a maturity of understanding and experience before entering the air with any type of aircraft.
Remote pilots must take the time to study and learn the regulations, as well as know and practice with their aircraft and controls and learn how to handle emergency situations and avoid dangerous situations.
Another perception by both sides is that these aircraft, being small and relatively lightweight, are merely toys and couldn’t possibly do much harm even if there were an impact. This is an incredibly dangerous and erroneous assumption that could not be further from the truth.
Recently, researchers at the University of Dayton conducted a test using a DJI Phantom series drone to see what damage would occur in an impact to the leading edge of an airplane wing. The results are startling, as seen in a short video posted on YouTube.
You can imagine the impact to a windscreen and then you begin to understand how the risk becomes even more serious.
We also cannot forget the danger to pedestrians on the ground or a fly away resulting in a drone dropping out of the sky over a busy interstate highway at rush hour or into a crowd of event goers as four razor sharp rotors spinning at nearly 600 RPM falls onto someone unexpectedly.
The Impact on Aviation Careers
I also asked about concerns about jobs shifting from traditional pilots to drones. Surprisingly, there wasn’t as big of a concern as I expected.
There seemed to be an acknowledgement for a rapidly growing use of military drones, which makes sense given the risk to pilots flying manned missions that could be done with a remote aircraft without the risk of loss of life.
For civilian purposes there didn’t seem to be as much concern and even some interest in how drones could add to the offerings of some aviation businesses. Certain services could be accomplished by drones at a much more competitive price than using an airplane or helicopter.
It is relatively easy for a Part 61 pilot to add Part 107 as well, further making this a good tool to have moving forward.
What can be done to improve safety?
Everyone I spoke with had nearly an identical answer to the question about what can be done to improve safety and operations for both manned and remote pilots. The answer? Better education and awareness training.
While recreational pilots flying under Section 336 Special Rule for Model Aircraft have their own set of rules to follow, at this time it remains a bit of a gray area as to how many are actually adhering to this. According to the FAA, Section 336 Recreation/Hobbyist Pilots are to follow community-based safety guidelines and fly within the programming of a community-based organization, such as the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA).
Another pilot familiar with this spoke very highly of the level of organization and professionalism of the AMA and how well it has performed over the years.
The question is, though, how many recreational drone pilots are actually joining the AMA or flying in safely controlled environments?
The second suggestion is more an extension of the first: Having better — and possibly even mandatory — education for recreational pilots.
We are well aware that professional 14 CFR Part 107 Remote Pilots must pass a required aeronautical knowledge test administered by an FAA authorized testing center. This ensures an understanding of airspace, risk mitigation, weather, aeromedical and many other factors that any pilot needs to understand.
Having a similar, perhaps more fundamental, level of required training for all pilot levels below Part 107 would shine a brighter light on the realities of what can happen when flying in shared airspace.
Another point that was discussed was geofencing of the drones themselves. This would prohibit the drone from starting up or taking off without being unlocked by some sort of authentication and approval.
Some drone manufacturers already have forms of this built into their flight software, however it still isn’t the best solution. While having locks can keep things battened down in a limited fashion, they can also impede the urgency of emergency responders and professional, responsible operators needing immediate access to the skies.
A new frontier
One thing many pilots agree on is that this is a whole new frontier in aviation — and one not likely to go away.
In fact, it will only continue to grow as technology and capabilities advance.
The gains in efficiency and commercial growth is incredible. Along with that, we should expect a commitment by remote operators to also advance their understanding and respect for the shared airspace.
Manned aircraft pilots already have plenty to watch for in the skies. When thousands of drone are flying in the National Airspace System, manned aircraft pilots should be able to rely on the same mutual respect, professionalism, and flight courtesy by remote pilots as they extend to other aircraft.
Neither type of aircraft are toys and all should be taken seriously as we all find our own place in the skies.