There’s a lot of talk about drones recently, some of it reasoned but most of it not. In the former category would be a report by the AUVSI (the trade group representing the unmanned systems industry) detailing the major impact drones could have on farming. In the latter category would be the town of Deer Trail, Colorado, which announced plans to legalize the hunting of drones by its citizens. Pilots aren’t much better than the general public, with some declaring drones the saviors of personal air transportation and others declaring them the biggest threat to general aviation in decades.
Like most of these politically-charged questions, there are valid arguments on both sides. Drones certainly aren’t all bad news for pilots; even for a weekend flyer there could be some nice benefits. On the whole, though, drones offer plenty of reasons to worry for general aviation pilots. It’s not time to panic, but it is time to consider some potential issues–and not just the obvious ones.
One of the most under-appreciated things about the unmanned aerial systems (UAS) movement is how radically it has shifted the focus for military research and development. Until very recently, most aerospace companies competed to make the biggest, fastest, most advanced fighter jets–and the result was airplanes like the $159 million F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Now, a lot of effort is focused on making things smaller and cheaper, not bigger and faster. The result is backpack-sized flying vehicles instead of multi-engine jets.
This matters, because general aviation has traditionally been heavily influenced by military technology (think of GPS for an obvious example). But while most of the technology on the F-35 will never make it to a Cessna, the “smaller is better” movement in UAS could lead to some more affordable improvements. Just look at propulsion–from tiny gas engines to new high capacity batteries, drone designers are innovating in areas that once seemed stagnant. If electric airplanes ever become practical, it’s a good bet we’ll have drones to thank for it.
Beyond the new developments, drones offers manufacturers another market for their products. Sensenich Propellers recently pointed out that their new composite propeller for general aviation airplanes would be significantly more expensive if not for the increased volume the UAS market brings. For businesses struggling with the depressed general aviation market, this new market is a lifeline.
This innovation won’t fix general aviation’s problems overnight. But from tiny ADS-B transceivers to new engine designs for LSAs, there is real potential here. It’s worth remembering these positives when we consider the darker possibilities.
While this boom in less expensive technology is undoubtedly good, a valid question is whether anyone will be around to fly with this new equipment. You’ve probably heard the line that the last fighter pilot has already been born, and it’s mostly true. The future of military aviation is unquestionably in unmanned aircraft, from bombers to spyplanes. The latest example is Boeing’s X-47B, which just landed on an aircraft carrier.
That’s bad news for anyone who wants to inspire the next generation of pilots. From airshows to movies, military aviation has long been a powerful source of inspiration for young people. But in 10 years, it’s quite likely that Top Gun will look like ancient history–remember when humans flew fighters? As the glamour of being a fighter pilot fades, the allure of aviation will fade for many kids.
Besides threatening military pilot jobs, drones will seriously impact two other segments of aviation: agricultural application and law enforcement. These two areas are, if anything, ahead of the military in terms of UAS adoption, and are particularly interested in tiny vehicles. Unfortunately, these two segments are some of the only bright spots in the general aviation market right now (as the latest GAMA numbers show). These mini-booms could be snuffed out within five years.
Drones may not replace airline pilots anytime soon, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be serious changes in the number of professional pilots.
The concerns about the declining demand for pilots are nothing new. But there’s another problem that isn’t getting enough attention–the new focus on privacy that drones have brought. This has serious implications for private pilots.
According to the newspapers, John Doe is worried that tiny drones can appear over his back yard and take pictures of his house with no approval or flight plan. A recent article from The Atlantic neatly sums up the issue.
This paranoia, a dangerous combination of NIMBYism and government distrust, is leading to some uncomfortable questions for general aviation. Because of the drone debates, many non-pilots are now learning that weekend flyers don’t have to file a flight plan or talk to Air Traffic Control as they chase $100 hamburgers. While this is rightly celebrated as the core strength of recreational flying in America, it frightens many in the general public. If a drone can buzz my house anytime, what’s to stop a Cherokee from doing the same? Shouldn’t that be illegal?
Maybe I’m being as paranoid as the scared citizens, but I think general aviation pilots could quickly find themselves in a tough spot in this debate. While many of us probably aren’t wild about drones, we are allies when it comes to defending the freedom to fly. Some of the laws being drafted by local governments could easily ensnare us as well as peeping Toms (we’ll just ban flights below 2000 ft!). The last thing we need is more restrictions on where and when we can fly.
One thing’s for sure–drones aren’t going away. There’s no use ignoring them or wishing they hadn’t been invented. As an industry, we need to embrace the changes that will benefit our flying and fight the changes that will restrict it.