Debate: are drones good or bad for general aviation?

Drones are certainly one of the hottest news stories of 2016, with everyone from Disney World to the Department of Defense adopting them for a variety of missions. While drones still have a lot to figure out, it’s clear that they are here to stay – and that could have serious implications for pilots. Are those implications good or bad?

Yuneec drone
An exciting new technology or an existential threat?

Believe it or not, there is a vocal group of pilots who think drones will be very good for general aviation. Specifically, the hype and money surrounding them could very well attract new people to aviation. All those non-pilots going to FAA testing centers to take a Remote Pilot Knowledge Exam are potential prospects for flight training. Besides the people, drones might bring some exciting new technology to light aircraft. From lighter weight batteries to electric motors to new autopilot designs, manned aircraft designs could benefit from the large volume and low cost of drone equipment.

Other pilots would suggest taking off the rose-colored glasses. Drones present a significant safety threat for airplanes, as the rising number of “close calls” proves. It seems only a matter of time before a serious collision. In addition, drones could spark a new regulatory wave that unintentionally swallows up manned aviation, especially when it comes to airspace rules. Finally, pilots might eventually find themselves out of a job, as drones increasingly take over for humans. What’s to like about that?

What do you think? Are drones good or bad for general aviation? Should we welcome them or fear them? Add a comment below.

12 Comments

  • Good or bad is sort of irrelevant when you consider that they are here to stay and likely will increase in popularity and significantly influence aviation in one way or another. The best way to deal is for the aviation community to take charge of the conversation. Build a branch of AOPA and EAA dedicated to drones and bring them under our umbrella. Because if they remain in their own separate bubble then they will drive legislation that speaks to their own interests and may leave GA behind as irrelevant and outdated. Best to reach a hand out now than later.

    • I agree! The aviation safety practices are also much higher than of the drones’ world and reaching out to this community is also is very efficient way to promote proper safety practices and help them become better and more responsible “pilots” who understand in what environment they are flying.

  • There is a bubble bigger than a balloon at the moment which will burst. All those stories about how they will be used in agriculture and in the vineyards two years ago and now, when you take a look, there is a phone book of bust companies.
    At the moment the marginal gains from having a “drone-expert” come and spend a couple of days flying his machine up and down the rows are tiny. (and it takes a couple of days, these things only fly for half an hour and it takes another half hour to change the battery). The camera’s they have are not very good, the software to interpret the camera’s is not very good, the “drone-expert” knows nothing about grape plants and expects to be paid the same as an airline pilot…
    And at the same time for much less you can ring up to get a detailed satellite analysis of your field / vinyard, delivered to your door for not much more than €150 the next day.
    Which is not to say that things will stay the way of a deflated balloon. The Japanese (Honda to be precise) have a petrol (gasoline) engined radio-controlled helicopter / drone which will whizz up and down the field then, after you give it some fungicide, whiz back and spray the infected plants and the ones next to it (it is a helicopter) then come back. It is great and would be greater if it did not cost the same as a tractor.
    Is it good for general – aviation. My guess is that people who play (sorry, that of course should be work) with flying machines are supporters of General Aviation and would love to learn how to fly. If only they could shoot down those satellites and charge what they dream to get the cash to do so.

    • John – I agree with you that professional drone video services are not going to be a big growth business … but I disagree with you about the quality of the video.

      I have watched a lot of recent drone-generated videography and it’s simply spectacular. Just go to You Tube and you’ll see what I mean.

      The latest consumer dron models like the DJI Phantom 4 feature a very high quality 4K/UHD video cam with a quality gimbal that produces steady, Hollywood quality video no matter what maneuvers the drone is performing. It’s easy to control both the drone and the camera simultaneously, because these latest models feature pre-programmed flight path controls that allow the drone pilot to focus on controlling the scan of the camera rather than flying the drone. Some models even allow a third party to control the videocam remotely from the drone flight controls. The quality of the video produced, in terms of resolution, field of view, color saturation, etc. is excellent. Sat photography or aerial photography simply cannot compare with what is routinely produced by these newest consumer drone-cams.

      These latest versions of retail drones provide video footage that could not be collected from any airplane or even helicopter, such as “dronies” (equivalent to a still cam “selfie”); circling around a specified point at a very tight radius and at varying altitudes; “cable-cams” that allow the drone operator to specify any two points in 3D space and then drone automatically flies that path straight as if mounted on a rail; and “follow me” or “follow target” that lets the drone identify a particular moving target (a person, a vehicle, a boat, etc.) and simply follows that target as it travels to wherever it goes.

      And models like the Phantom 4 also have sophisticated obstacle avoidance sensors and systems to prevent pilots from crashing their drones into buildings, trees, signs, etc., which was a big problem until recently.

      All of that is available in a drone that sells for less than $1,000, and full systems for less than $2,000 with a bunch of extra batteries, battery charger, extra props, carrying case, etc.

      • Yep, but the cameras which show up the signs of stress in plants are not hi-res wonder ones. They are usually infra-red and do not come built in to toy drones and sometimes just jiffy taped on to the machine, and are not very good.
        Even in applications where drones use ordinary cameras, problems arise.
        I have heard of of outfit, specialized in inspecting oil wells, which does a great job signalling problems when the boss, a former oilman, is “piloting” the drone.
        When anyone else does it you might as well get a cherry picker and look yourself because they do not understand what they are looking at.

  • Good for GA PR. Bad because we are not capitalizing on this as we should. Slowly, two groups are forming, old , outdated small airplane pilots, and young, cool drone operators. Yet again we are dropping the ball.

    The drone racing cages bring WAY more people out to the airport then the newest 172. We need to do more. We need to encourage people to show up at the airport on a sat morning with their kids, and when the drone competition is over, the kids can climb into parked airplanes while the parents attend a 30 min fun presentation on becoming flying pilots.

    Having a gezilon people at OshKosh is truly amazing, but that is NOT our target market, we need to go wider, and drones can get us there.

    AOPA… my 2 cents.

  • “Drones” are to human-piloted aircraft, what automatic transmissions were to clutch pedals and column levers; what personal computers were to mainframes; and yes – what laser printers were to the corner print shop.

    Scaled-up drones are the future of passenger-carrying light GA. We’ll call them “autonomous aircraft.” They will not prevent pilots from hand-flying traditional aircraft.

  • I think the poster above underestimates the potential for drone in agriculture. Here in the rural US, farm workers spend a tremendous amount of time, energy, and pickup truck miles driving around a 20 mile radius area to look at their crops, check for flooding in low spots, check that irrigation equipment is working, etc. if those farm workers can sit behind a desk and fire up a drone, they can get a visual on each farm they are working without all the travel.

  • Overall, there may be some positive impact from the drone explosion on the number of people desiring to become pilots as a result of their use of drones … after all, the POV photography and videography provides a sense of what one can see in person from the cockpit of an aircraft … and therefore, an invitation to fly.

    The initial FAA rules on drones seem to make a great deal of sense as a “first cut”, despite all the whining and complaining from both drone proponents and drone opponents as the rules were being developed. The rules will still need to be tweaked as we gain experience, but I actually think the FAA way outperformed their usual predilection for gross over-regulation. It’s an encouraging sign for all of private aviation.

    Finally, I think that the notion of professional drone services as a growth business was probably wildly overstated. After all, with the continued development of very sophisticated low cost drones like the DJI Phantom 4 (completely outfitted for well under $2K), which have sophisticated automated flight regimes, sophisticated obstacle avoidance systems, and sophisticated video controls, it is practical for lightly-trained newbies to produce professional quality aerial videos. Consequently, there really isn’t much demand for a “pro” at high costs when one can do it yourself at very low cost.

  • I think they’re generally bad for GA, because many flying jobs (crop dusting, surveying + police work, and photography to name a few) are going to very quickly be adopted by the UAV market.

    That being said – they absolutely should.

    We’ve found a safer, more efficient, and cheaper method of doing these jobs. The horse and buggy died with the automobile, and if GA takes a hit in the name of technological progress, then so be it.

    Fighting developments in the aviation world for nostalgia’s sake or because “it’s how it’s always been” when something clearly superior comes along just makes us, the GA guys, look incapable of adapting to the modern world.

    Embracing it now means *we* are the industry leaders, not the angry traditionalists left at the wayside as everyone else moves on.

  • Drones, give the Faa a chance to do what they do best, add on more rules and regulations, they now have created whole departments for drones. But we still use Lead in aircraft gas after 30 years. We still have a third class medical, now we have to register aircraft every three years instead of one time, forced to add on ADSB so you can keep your eyes on a screen instead of looking outside, I have listened to some commercial pilots talk, and it is obvious they do not want anything flying except themselves, that includes GA and drones for sure. I do believe drones are coming for commercial use but it will be like fighting the 73,000 page tax code and IRS.

  • Schools for drone pilots? You have to be kidding me. Unless they are flying some super dooper drone for high speed chase sequences, training is absolutely not necessary with the recreational drones now available. You simply have to be able to read the instructions. Drone racers certainly were not trained by FAA approved schools. That is just bureaucratic nonsense. In my mind, the recent FAA “registration” is simply another bureaucracy building endeavor.

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