Drones: the good, the bad and the ugly

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.

Small drone

Not all drones run on jet fuel – small, hand-launched aircraft are increasingly popular with the military and law enforcement.

Who’s right?

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.

The Good

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.

The Bad

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.

Boeing drone

If drones can land on aircraft carriers, what can’t they do?

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 Ugly

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.

8 Comments

  1. Matt E says:

    I’m not really sold on either camp (pro-UAS or anti-UAS), but one thing that does really bother me is the all-in way it seems some are chasing the UAS dream. There are many jobs for which the right UAS is perfect. There are just as many jobs that trying to use a UAS to do them is like using a hammer to install screws, painting with a cannon, or using a Ferrari to run a taxi service (i.e., just not cost-effective).

    My favorite example is the U2 versus yet another replacement (nothing can replace the Dragon Lady it seems), the RQ-4 Global Hawk. The gist of the story is that the U2 was destined to be retired in favor of the $176,000,000 per unit Global Hawks, but instead it was found to be more economically viable to continue to fly the 60-year-old, but still very capable, U2. This in spite of Northrop’s very convincing sales pitch (“It’s old, buy our drones.”). So, for at least another decade it seems, the U2 and pilot(s) will continue to inhabit the very thin air keeping watch over whatever it is they are watching.

  2. E. CORTES says:

    With all due respect, Mr. Zimmerman missed the most critical issue of all: The increased possibility of mid air collisions if drones are allowed to share the airspace with real airplanes, both because the larger number of vehicles sharing the space, and because of the lower standards of both the drone hardware and those who control it. Your average drone operator won’t be like the highly trained people controlling military drones, who must follow strict protocols. Think more like Sheriff Bubba, playing with a joystick, with limited skill and training, and no risk whatsoever to his own life if something goes wrong. On top of that, cheaper hardware and unregulated maintenance mean less robust systems to prevent an faulty drone from straying into the path of a real airplane (one with people inside).
    Why should drones share our airspace? They will not be required to meet the hardware certification standards of real airplanes. They will not be operated by FAA licensed pilots. They will not be maintained by real A&Ps. Why my family and I have to accept the risk of flying anywhere near a drone that is not built, maintained, or piloted to the same standards??
    Unfortunately, it will take a tragedy, like a collision with a drone downing an airliner, to show us how senseless this is.

    • duck says:

      Very true E. C. Here is another thing that supports your post: Drone missions are only concerned what is happening on the ground. They are not concerned about what is going on around them, and, as you pointed out, they have no skin in the game. So are they trying to tell us that if a drone is on a mission looking for illegals or such, and they get a blip on their collision avoidance device, they will abort the mission and do an avoidance maneuver? I doubt it. Make no mistake, there will be mid-airs. Or, will there be a TFR around every drone mission……goodbye General Aviation!!!!!

  3. Tom Yarsley says:

    The popular characterization of all unmanned aerial vehicles as “drones” serves only the fear-mongers and the uninformed. The highest-level bifurcation of UAVs is the differentiation between “remotely-controlled” vehicles that are operated by human “pilots,” and true autonomous vehicles that figure out how to execute their mission without any real-time interaction with human “pilots.”

    The former are cause for genuine concern, because they more-closely resemble the caricature painted by E. Cortes, above.

    The latter arguably are safer by far than human-operated vehicles, but are resisted and denigrated by human pilots who are offended by the idea that any machine could “replace” them. Some human pilots also fear that widespread use of autonomous vehicles will bring some likelihood that human-piloted flying will be banned.

    Regardless, I would point out that many people think that “real airplanes” are built by Boeing and Airbus, and that anything smaller than a 737 doesn’t belong in the public airspace. So be very careful about claims to “our airspace” – you may find yourself without any.

    Please keep in mind that when Joe Average hears about VFR operations that are bereft of constant and total “control” by ATC, his immediate reaction is to outlaw that, too.

    The fact that some of these “drones” will not be operated by “FAA licensed pilots” misses the point that Joe Average thinks that anyone with something less than an ATP certificate isn’t a “real pilot.” For evidence of that, look no further than recent Congressional action to require all part 121/125 aircrew to hold an ATP.

    There are lots of ways to achieve safety. All of the accumulated evidence shows that thus far, humans operating under Private Pilot certificates are the least effective way to do so.

    John rightly points out that another danger in this is the conflation of the vehicles and their operators, with the missions of the vehicles. This is where people who have legitimate concerns about privacy issues mistakenly think that outlawing a type of vehicle will effectively outlaw the detested mission. Any light aircraft – manned or unmanned – is capable of being assigned to such surveillance missions. To any extent that any type of vehicle is mis-associated with a mission, all of GA becomes eligible for banishment. Anyone who thinks that this is an over-reaction should take the time to remember when the mayor of Chicago wanted to ban all GA in that city’s airspace, in the wake of 9-11-2001.

    “Drones” are coming. We should accept that, and learn how to safely co-exist with them, just as we allow IFR and VFR traffic to co-exist; airliner and GA traffic to co-exist; military and civil traffic to co-exist. It’s not “our airspace.” It’s everyone’s airspace. Let’s keep it that way.

  4. Peg Ballou says:

    The University of North Dakota (UND) presented an excellent presentation at Oshkosh AirVenture this year about the use of UAS as law enforcement assets. Of course, they highlighted their program, but also general knowledge about the use of “drones” in general. The unregulated use of flight devices by the hobbyist can invade and videotape privacy (think paparazzi)but the highly regulated police use is quite the opposite. Military use is another story as well. Thanks for the informative article. This is an issue that will continue to be in the news for awhile.

  5. Hunter Heath says:

    As Peg hints, another issue for the “ugly” category is the effect of the drone wars on model airplane hobbyists. Check out the picture accompanying the article– the plane being launched looks almost identical to the 1/2A-powered free-flight gliders of my youth. I suspect there are among our readers many who started their aviation interests with models, and some who are current radio-controlled model flyers. The AMA has real concerns about what new regulations against R/C model flying may emerge from the distorted, fear-fueled dialog about “them drone thangs.” I have no idea how to counter this. The media feeding frenzy overpowers calm, rational voices.

  6. Douglas Grant says:

    I have heard a UND professor, I believe he was the head of the program there say that he believes that commercial UAS pilots will have to be licensed by the FAA, and commercial vehicles will have to have airworthiness certificates and N-numbers.
    The r/c vehicles for amateur purposes are another issue. There will probably be new rules.
    Oh, and if we are going to give credit for small engines and electric propulsion it will have to go first to the R/C folks.

  7. Doyle Frost says:

    Several interesting points made here. One was about the cost of the military UAV’s, multiple millions, even exceeding the cost of some manned aircraft. Another one was the number of “flight controllers,” and their Unqualified capabilities. Yet another, the risk of inflight collisions with these pieces of equipment. To my jaundiced eye, the negatives far outweigh the positives at this point in time. And a scary aspect on this subject is the non-reasoning politicians interjecting their lack of qualified verbiage into the mix, with their perceived benefits, to total discounting of the facts. Now, the big money manufacturers are looking into totally automated passenger airliners, and to be honest, that scares the daylights out of me. Especially when one has experience in maintaining those automated devices and general equipment, and has seen the results of a “loose wire” or a failed resistor, or worse yet a shorted diode, which happens more often than the million dollar sales people, and political “experts” are willing to even consider.