The Great Debate: are UAVs a threat?

Predator drone
The Predator is one of the largest and most successful UAVs.

In February, Congress finally passed a long-term FAA re-authorization bill that settled some important issues for the next few years (including no user fees). But buried in the bill was a significant section on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)–also called UAS or drones. These small, remotely-controlled aircraft have exploded in popularity over the last five years, especially among the military and law enforcement organizations. They are relatively inexpensive and capable of flying missions that are impossible for manned crews. UAVs can be as small as a hand-held helicopter and as large as the 2,200 lb. Predator that has seen extensive use in Afghanistan and Iraq. The FAA bill not only allows, but requires UAVs to be deployed by 2015 throughout the National Airspace System. Smaller UAVs (up to five pounds) could be flying any day now, with larger models (up to 55 lbs.) allowed in the next two years.

This legislation raises numerous questions, most of which are unanswered at this point. For example, how will UAVs “see and avoid” piloted airplanes? What type of airspace will drones be flying in? What is ATC’s role? What are the limitations on who can operate a UAV?

What do you think? Are drones a serious safety concern for pilots, or an exciting and efficient step forward for aviation? Share your opinion below.

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21 Comments

  • It depends on how the UAVs are going to be used and whether UAVs can manage their own separation from other aircraft. The latter is particularly important if they are going to fly a lot in areas shared with VFR operations.

    • Actually followed the link to the FAA site and it seems to answer most of the questions.

      In short, 4.4 lbs, under 400 ft, 5 miles from aiports,Class G, in line-of-site, after demonstrating proficiency. There are plenty of radio controlled airplanes flying today without the proficiency demonstration part.

      The words from the link for the first responders part.

      “First Responders
      Another part of the reauthorization bill directed the FAA to “allow a government public safety agency to operate unmanned aircraft weighing 4.4 pounds or less” under certain restrictions. The bill further specifies these UAS must be flown within the line of sight of the operator, less than 400 feet above the ground, during daylight conditions, inside Class G (uncontrolled) airspace and more than five miles from any airport or other location with aviation activities.
      The FAA and the Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice have established an agreement that meets the congressional mandate. Initially, law enforcement organizations will receive a COA for training and performance evaluation. When the organization has shown proficiency in flying its UAS, it will receive an operational COA. The agreement also expands the allowable UAS weight up to 25 pounds.”

  • The recklessness with which this is being rushed is appalling. It takes decades to let pilots fly without medicals, but only a few weeks to let Sheriff Bubba play with a 25 pound drone in the same airspace as planes with flesh and blood people inside ! Have we forgot that a mid air collision with even a 25 pound drone can down ANY aircraft? Have the Feds lost their minds? Are they thinking drones never fail or lose their control links? Will drone operators and mechanics be FAA certified? If they share our airspace, they should be held to the same safety standards. If a drone operator strays from their boundaries, are they going to be penalized, like us, real pilots are when we bust an altitude or an airspace we don’t belong to?? It is not a matter of IF it will happen, but WHEN will it happen, that a drone will have a mid air collision with an airliner and down it. Then we will all regret this madness.

    • UAVs do not need to be up there period. There is no need for them. The operators would have to be better qualified than pilots. They would not have the ability to reason , see, and avoid an accident as well.

  • I wish I could say I have answers, but I only have questions. The primary being, who is qualified to operate a UAS and how are they qualified? I ask this, because I’m somewhat concerned about law enforcement and government agencies, but I’m really concerned about people like real estate agents and photo/video people. I love my fellow photographers to death, but I’m concerned about the possibility of the unwashed masses deploying drones in places in which their use ought to be restricted. For example, picture an enterprising real estate photographer deploying a 15 pound UAS to capture aerial photos of a home located in the approach path for the local airport. That is more concerning to me because those people were already using UAS until the FAA stepped in shut them down.

    http://www.helicamsolutions.com/ – This is what I’m talking about.

    http://mi6films.com/2011/rc-helicopter-mikrokopter-hexa-helicopter/faa-has-restricted-all-rc-helicopter-flight-in-the-usa-airspace/687/ – Here is the story I was referencing.

  • Eliacim is absolutely right. Also the US Constitution protects every American’s right to be secure in his person and property. If the local police want to use UAV’s to support a police action, fine but with unconstitutional groups like the TSA, EPA and the general misuse of Homeland security, these can and will be used for surveillance. Just one example would be the EPA. They are out of control right now. They could use UAV’s to monitor if your house is kept too cold or too hot. An Army of these flying over us is unacceptable.

  • Probably not much more dangerous than the thousands (Millions?) of large birds flying around uncontrolled now. UAVs should also allow more efficient (and possibly safer) operations like traffic watch, surveying and maybe even agricultural spraying. I do worry about organizations like the Dept of Homeland Security using them though; It would be nice to be able to pee in the back yard without them watching.

  • I have two concerns, first these UAV’s are larger than birds and will be flown by, basically, untrained amateurs with no radio contact to the flight pattern of the area. When an in air mishap occurs it will be the aviator in the aircraft that takes the blame and GA the brunt of the backlash. We are the professionals and the blame will rest with us even if we do our jobs without error. The pilot of the UAV will be a law enforcement agent with minimal training and be given a free pass in the name of “assuring the safety of civilians”.

    Second, this legislation is put forth as a “small reasonable step” and we all know how that ends up. Right now its not authorized within five miles of an airport. What happens a few years from now when they push to decrease that range because most cities are within the five mile radius of an airport and law enforcement needs to fly in those areas?

  • I’m concerned with this new legislation, not only for the safety concerns it poses to both full scale aviation, but as it appears to grant exceptions for corporations and government agencies.

    Until recently, models weighing from 5 to 50 pounds have been common hobby grade products, the RC community being very responsible with organising clubs and keeping clear of full scale airspace. Flying UAV’s has been discouraged legally and in terms of safety for the very reasons being mentioned by comments on this page. Even first person view models with 2.4 GhZ cameras needed to remain within visible line of sight, with a spotter keeping an eye on the model at all times.

    Until now, someone flying a 5 pound, 70 mph model over a community would be a danger to the public, but it’s okay for an agency to do the same thing? I know the legislation differentiates between RC models and drones, but the potential threat is greater as hobby items are generally limited to isolated clubs away from airfields and cities.

    I see this new legislation as circumventing existing laws designed to protect aviation and the public from hobbyists by allowing other groups to legally do the opposite.

  • As an attorney and pilot I can tell you that the first midair accident caused by a UAV will have the operator claiming governmental immunity from any liability. The loss will be yours, not theirs.

  • Utterly against this, at this time, and consider it to be the greatest threat to the National Airspace other than another successful braided attack such as 911 by another al-whatever. I have several reasons:

    1. There IS no such thing as the “National Airspace.” When there is I will completely drop all objections. And, folks, that’s not going to happen until it’s technologically feasible. And, it’s not. We’re still working on all the manifold technics required, let alone having them work seamlessly, the toughest task of all.

    2. The FAA has always claimed that 95$ of crashes are due to pilot error. Are they trying to change this stat by introducing more accidents into the airspace? More ‘no I’m not a pilot(s)’ into the mix is not going to raise the level of air safety. And, yet here they are whining and moaning about vastly jacking up the number of required flight hours for accession to the left seat of merely regional airliners – but they’re going to ram through thousands of less qualified ‘I’m NAPs’, none of whom will be coordinating which other, and claiming it’s safe?

    3. I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts that there will quickly arise areas, such as near the border, where so many UAVs under only the control of differing companies and government agencies will proliferate and form chokepoints to safe air operations. Running a multiplexed airspace with wildly differing aircraft, fast movers mixing with helos and slow and low A/C is something that the military does very well. But they have to work at it all the time, separately and jointly, in order to make it work. This will not be the case in a civilian environment. In additon, you’re going to be introducing a completely different flight envelope of slow aircraft at all altitudes – oh, trust me, right about now some sage will parrot we do this already. No, we don’t. The military does. What the civilian operators will be doing is buying UAVs that work in all sizes, operate at all but supersonic rates and work at all altitudes – because, good people, the operators will be purchasing what they can afford. You know, big companies vs. very small operators also buying differently for disparate missions. I don’t know if US air traffic controllers will welcome the increased work load, so I don’t know if they have a special term for this chaos, but if it were say, Israel, there is a special word: meshuggah. “Way crazy.” We don’t need the extra trouble.

    4. And, who do you think is going to have to check out each of the incidents considered violations of this, that or whatever airspace in real time? Yep, that’s right – the same Air Force and Naval Aviation who are telling you we’re already running out the life of the airframes that are our national defense assets. Since I don’t even drink, please correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t the part in that Guiness ad were the two cartoon Irishmen yell, “Brilliant!!?”

    5. Believe it or not, I actually want this to come to fruition. But, gentle(pilot)readers, it’s not yet, ’cause it ain’t ready for primetime. It will take the level that will eventually come as computing power continues to drop in price, and it rises to the level of sophistication of George Jetson, Robert Heinlein’s novels “The Puppet Masters” and “Beyond this Horizon,” and H.Beam Piper’s “Federations” novels.
    Did you notice that one was a child’s cartoon, and the others were science fiction novels?

    6. The Point I Am Trying To Make is this: I don’t want to sound as the Britsh aeronautical engineer Nevil Shute Norway did when he wrote a learned paper in 1929 ‘proving’ that heavier-than-air flight would never become econmically feasible. I’m not even hoping that I will be as inaccurate as he was in his later novel “On the Beach.” I know I will. Just not this week, because I am, in particular ill, at ease with a FAA who dictatorally ram through ‘you will do as you are told by 2015’ with as-yet missing fully-automated-at-the-science=fiction level necessary for Bob Heinlein’s ‘no sparrow shall fall’ system to actually work.

    So let’s keep working, but without the ramrod approach, and make it happen.

  • Many considerations here:
    Are they a threat to pilots in general?…
    Are they a threat to a particular segment of general aviation?…
    Are they a threat to ALL segments of aviation?…
    Are they a threat to our personal freedom from spying authorities?…
    Is this really “Big Brother” come to life?…
    To my personal way of thinking, the simple answer to all the above is yes. We could debate, for ever and ever, the pros and cons of this subject, without actually solving anything, as everyone has their own opinion.
    But, is the FAA listening to the people actually flying, or just their political “buddies” and other supporters of non-aviation lifestyles? In this case, they are listening to the people signing their paychecks, not the ones actually paying the money for that paycheck. Or, are they?
    If enough aviation supporters, all categories, from the “kid on the street” to the fighter pilots of “our” world” and the jet jockeys of the largest aviation asset, get a consensus of thought aginst this, and can convince their friends and families of this potential threat to our way of life, then maybe, just maybe, the F.A.A. will be forced to listen, and heed, our opinions.

  • UAVs (the autonomous ones, anyway) are a threat to aviation in exactly the same way that telephones were a threat to telegrams. I, for one, am grateful that that earlier threat was dealt with appropriately and decisively by people who had my best interests at heart.

  • I know, I know, I wrote a serious comment before – but since you brought the header back on the page, my terrible sensayuma popped up on my HUD:

    I’ll drop all my objections to UAVs, especially those flown by organizations that tend to get a little Gestapo around the edges with personal privacy and civil protections against bad government. Today.

    And still protect your sunbathing teenage daughters from ‘zealous’ government agents.

    All you have to do is eliminate ANY law forbidding the personal ownership and use of MANPADS(shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, for those in Rio Linda), and grant total immunity from prosecution as long as they are fired at government aircraft, UAV or other. . .

    [And, for Crud’s sake: If There Are Any FAA Or Other Three-Letter Agency Humorless Officials, Also From Rio Linda – Of Course, I’m Bloody Joking. . .]

  • Geez, what a bunch of conspiracy wingnuts!
    1) That Gestapo Sherrif Bubba is the first guy you call when you get in a wreck, get robbed or anything else where you run one way and ask him or her to run the opposite way and put himself in harms way for you. He does it for relatively low pay and is subject to no warning shift changes, a mad spouse, poor health, little sleep and when a bad guy is caught, he gets on the stand in court and goes on trial, not to see if the bad guy did bad stuff, but if he, Sherrif Bubba, did his job right.
    2) Law enforcement budgets are hard hit right now, may never recover, and it will be a long time before something like this takes off. Take a pill.
    3) The supreme court has already addressed the issue of law enforcement using FLIR images to detect marijuana grow houses, and has said that info cannot be used, even though the images were picked up in the normal course of a patrol flight because the house was glowing like a nuclear bomb. Relax, your liberal president and his liberal court have your back.
    4) Tell your teenaged daughter to sunbathe with her clothes on. She’s doing it for the kid next door she’s teasing, not some cop trying to catch bad guys.
    5) Go sign up for your local citizens police academy and get a reality check on how law enforcement really operates. It’s not like that stupid CSI show you watch.

  • This is for ‘Lou.’

    Sir:

    I’m truly sorry that the majority of us don’t agree with you. I’m sorry that this makes you rant and denigrate almost everybody but yourself, and insist that others are “conspiracy wingnuts.” Oh, yes, and that ‘their’ daughters are budding porn stars, ‘teasing’ boyfriends. Were clothes/no clothes mentioned? Your mindset is . . . odd. Suggest also, you look up ‘irony,’ and ‘humor.’

    After that, perhaps you’d care to return to the subject, aviation, and in the future, leave the ad hominem attacks and hating for some other journal. And, possibly, learn the English language a bit better, which spells the word for a modern-day Shire reeve, as “Sheriff. . .”

    (News flash, just in: I’m always a big supporter of actual officers(‘blue shirts’)on the street. Bureaucratic cops(‘white shirts’), not so much. They tend to do things such as authorize overflights on legal citizens/

    Be well.

  • UAVs must be restricted away from piloted airplane airspace,
    until fully automatic and autonomous collision avoidance is perfected and proved.
    Class G only.

    That means it’s 100% effective even if the UAV operator leaves for lunch, loses contact,
    or tries to hit a plane deliberately.
    And even if a piloted plane doesn’t have a transponder or it isn’t working

    UAV collision avoidance might require cooperating airplane electronics,
    which could be a boon to our safety with or without UAVs.
    The cost of adding this to our panes would be paid by UAV operators of course.

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