The Drones Are Coming

CVS 30 from Tasuma

Acting under orders from Congress the FAA is speeding up its process to allow unmanned aircraft to fly in the national air space system. So, at least some of us will be sharing the air with unpiloted aircraft sooner than later.

First question—what to call these things? The term RP V for remotely pilot vehicle hung around for years. More recently the term UAV for unmanned aerial vehicle became common. More recently still the FAA favors the term UAS for unmanned aircraft systems. Let’s skip the acronyms and call them drones.

Drones have captured the public imagination over the past several years because the military has been using them to fire missiles at suspected terrorists with an apparently high degree of precision. Of course, the military doesn’t brag about the misses, but there have been enough direct hits to talk about that drones—particularly the large Predator— seem like magic to the public watching the nightly news on TV.

Dozens and dozens of companies are now in the drone manufacturing business creating all kinds of aerial vehicles from softball sized helicopters to enormous jet aircraft that can fly above 50,000 feet.

Mix public fascination with drones and lobbyists from drone makers together and Congress can’t possibly resist. So language in the FAA funding bill requires the FAA to devise ways to quickly integrate drones into the airspace.

Since drones don’t fit into the airspace in any conventional way the FAA is issuing waivers for their operation. The waiver process is certainly not new and is used for all kinds of flying activity such as air shows that don’t fit neatly into the normal rules. The initial drone operating waivers will go to police and public safety organizations and then the FAA will begin allowing drones to fly for commercial purposes such as pipeline patrol, mapping, photography and all sorts of observation.

At first glance, this sounds ominous to me as a pilot. Yes, I have a traffic alerting system that I trust to “see” the transponder on a drone. And before drones are turned loose in general airspace they too will have traffic detection and avoidance systems. But still, the drone pilot will be on the ground, or maybe there will not even be a pilot but a preprogrammed computer onboard to direct the flight path.

However, those concerns are still quite far into the future. The waivers the FAA is proposing to issue in the shorter term will restrict drone flights to altitudes below 400 feet agl, away from airports, and the drone must remain within sight of the operator on the ground. Initially the drone weight will be limited to 4.4 pounds, about two kilos. Once a drone operator demonstrates safety and competency in actual use, the size of the drone may be allowed to increase to 25 pounds.

The waivers the FAA is talking about issuing now, in the short term, are really not much different from radio controlled model airplanes. Some RC models are certainly heavier than 4.4 pounds, and some are very fast, even jet powered. But the model must remain within sight of its pilot on the ground, and must remain at low altitudes and away from airports and any other area where conventional airplanes are likely to fly.

Are the new FAA policies to streamline issuance of waivers for drone flight a worry? Not for me. At least not yet. There is nothing in the recent announcement that makes a drone any more threatening than an RC model airplane. But when Congress starts to pressure the FAA to change long standing air space operating policies, now that’s a reason to at least pay attention, and maybe even worry.

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35 Responses to The Drones Are Coming

  1. steve carter says:

    Drones in our airspace will be used to violate our constitutional rights and our right to privacy. If you don’t believe this just let the government keep on the path to watching your every move. This is a direct violation of the Constitution of the United States. Worry? I think you should be mad as hell! They will use this technology to our detriment if allowed to. Where is the money coming from for this debachle? We’re broke now….. who’s going to pay for this? I recommend shutting off any money to this endevour right now!

  2. Dave Keiper says:

    I absolutely agree with Steve. What good reason does the Gov. or anyone else have
    for flying over this country and looking into our private homes and yards? This is
    just another example of the Government getting out of hand, and all of us should be
    concerned about this. It’s about time for a tax payer’s revolt, our forefather’s had to
    do it with England. “Yes” I am mad as hell!

  3. John Houser says:

    I would only go along with the Drone program if it never leaves the 25# , 4oo’AGL and in line of sight. Anything other than that , I would consider it an act of war . Our current form of government is far out of control !!

  4. Hew says:

    Forget about below 400′ AGL, it’s out of hand now with camera bearing machines controlled from an iPhone peeking into your bedroom window.
    Above 400′ there is a need for serious pressure to be applied to your congressman before the big money get’s its way. UAV’s are seen as desirable and inevitable so they MUST be able to get out of my way without control from a human “pilot”. Autonomous see and avoid even in IMC is the only condition I would want when sharing airspace with UAV’s. Robots must give way to humans!

  5. bud says:

    As a member of aopa, eaa,ama, Isuggest that there will be a red botton installed free of charge in any ga or corp. airplane.This red button will be explained later.First of all the uav,s shouldbe made of a light mat,l , like paper.This would let it be imploded with out much harm to people on the ground. Flight duration shouldbe up to the winds aloft and thermals, since all of the unmanned planes need to be launched by rubber bungi.Now I ,m getting back to the red button in the the airplane. This button will be usable 5 miles out of said obstruction. I had my say and this idea is no different then our governments idea on uav,s

  6. Patrick says:

    As someone intimately involved in that industry, I must disagree…please call them anything EXCEPT “drones.” Drones refers specifically to aerial targets…they fly in a straight line until they are shot down for training. Also, its misleading….”mindless” is the word commonly attached to “drones” which contributes to exaggerated stories of rogue robots. RPV is directly controlled by the operator, akin to RC models. UAV/UAS means there is a programmable autopilot. Hope that clears up the nomenclature. And yes, there is always a human in control.

  7. Jim Hardin says:

    Big or small these RPV’s represent a hazard in the airspace system!

    Like anything, they are perfectly safe as long as EVEYTHING is working as it should. And therein lies the problem…

    If anything goes amiss you know have a 25 pound, uncontrolled projectile! Keep in mind a bowling ball is 10 to 16 pounds and moves at far less speed.

    And what of the operator?

    Keep in mind there is absolutely NO RISK to the operator hence they are completely detached from all consequences when making decisions…

    If they want to ‘share’ the system, they should be required to ‘share’ the responsibility!

    I feel they should be required to pass both written, oral, and Flight exam based on the requirements for at least a Sport Pilot Certificate, including an Operations Review (quiz & flight) every 2 years!

    Equipment needs to be tested along the lines of a TSO… We can’t have these things going rogue because someone turned on a microwave to warm their coffee.

    These things are coming! We need to make sure as much safety is built in before they start, not as a reaction to an incident.

  8. R. Rollins says:

    Have followed your outstanding work for years. How is it you can now be so far behind the curve regarding the subject of drones…?

  9. Ben Marion says:

    I agree with several of the other people’s comments. This is nothing more than another violation of American’s right to privacy. We have NEVER been able to trust our own Govt. on these issues, and we never will. There is NO good reason for this other than the capibility to SPY ! Call your Congressman…Ben Marion.

  10. Ben Marion says:

    P.S. to my earlier comment….Why isn’t AOPA , EAA, and every other Aviation Outfit fighting this ?…Ben Marion

  11. Sonny m says:

    Mac hit the nail on the head: lobbyists plus congress equals soaking the taxpayer for whatever……in this case model airplanes that will cost millions to “guard” the public against unknown bogeymen. Pipeline patrol, hah! How about cameras following you, peering into your back yard, following your car, watching you on your farm or ranch. The government is totally out of control spending money on anything to “stimulate” the economy. What a joke! Where’s the public outrage? Follow the money!

  12. Stormy Dayton says:

    Seems like quite a few pipeline/weather spotter/powerline/cropdusters/news reporting/banner tower’s and other pilots and observers, may be looking for a new line of work ! I don’t relish one hovering over MY back yard, however my neighbor should be watched ! ! (tongue in cheek)

  13. John Carter says:

    Well said everyone. I have no doubt that these mindless drones will immediately be used to subvert freedom everywhere, starting by peering through my bathroom window to check out my wife’s grecian body. The lobbyists from the “industry” are obviously spending taxpayer money, not private investment from companies that find themselves unable to compete with foreign outfits because they can’t test or develop legally in the US. Also, the government and the news choppers have no capability to zoom in and recognize your face from a mile out, that’s just sci-fi! But the drones will change everything. Private investment in new technology should be banned so we can all live in the Garden of Eden again.

    This will also make my life easier, since the principle reason I fly out of a grass strip in southern PA is to look at the neighbors sunbathing near the runway threshold, which has been established by these neighbors as a violation of privacy. Instead, I’ll just use a drone. It will work so much better than a manned airplane!

  14. Roughneck says:

    I see no benefit in drones/UAV’s/RPV’s. They still take an operator (NOT A PILOT) to monitor and control, and the bigger ones take a team of technicians to prepare for flight and to maintain. Our politicians and businesses are being sold a load of snake oil. KEEP PILOTS in the cockpit! While I am at it, BRING THE JOBS AND AIRCRAFT MANUFACTURING BACK FROM CHINA! Any “pilot” who takes a job operating a drone/UAV/RPV better not call himself or herself a pilot any more, because they are NOT! Lest you argue with me, I am sure that there would be 10,000 pilot applicants for any flying job to fly a light aircraft to do the same mission as a drone/UAV/RPV. I am sure a light aircraft could do the mission more economically and safely. The economist compare UAV’s to jet fighters and business jets to come up with their economic justification. Try the same comparison with a light aircraft and their numbers no longer favor the UAV’s. In my book the only place for UAV’s is in a deep strike mission into enemy territory that is too dangerous for a manned mission.

  15. Hew says:

    Check out the Linkedin/AOP site, some good, bad and banal comments. As I see it its not a technical issue, not if but when. Its a political issue. Get the rules in place now. Human carrying aerial vehicles have right of way. UAVs must be able to avoid all and get to the ground when things go wrong without human intervention. UAV owners must accept all liabilities.
    If attorneys can successfully kill the once great GA manufacturing base the USA enjoyed then surly they can keep these things out of the sky?

  16. steve carter says:

    Just an update for this article…….I now read that Drones were circling over the Super Bowl last year(not at 400 feet either) and the NFL commish is lobbying Congress for them and spending big bucks to do so. It has already begun! Write/call your congressman/woman about this.

  17. Deanes says:

    As a private pilot and I fly small RC quad copters, I certainly see both sides. I am learning to fly the quad safely and hope to start a business of aerial inspection services. For example, I can inspect a bridge, top bottom and sides, and never have to stop traffic or subject a person to dangling from a harness. I can carefully inspect every insulator on a transmission tower. Map by automatically flying my HD camera to waypoints and return “home” via gps. Lot of uses that save time costs, effort and increase safety. Lower costs for industry and taxpayers. That’s the technology.
    This is technology available for less than $3000.00 and it is just taking off, so much new innovation every day.
    I think the 400′ rule is fine. Line of sight is fine.
    No I don’t want to be in a plane and share airspace with some 200 mph drone, but there is a huge opportunity for using UAV’s under 400′

  18. Joseph says:

    “Drones” are the least of your worries if you are concerned about government intrusion. Not only are they already in large numbers… but are mainstream for the generation behind us older aviators. Even our most vaunted aero schools, such as Embry_Riddle, offer UAV minors… most kids don’t want to be pilot-pilots but UAV pilots.

    • Steve carter says:

      Least of our worries? I think not . How many drones do you fly?Land of the Free? Home of the Brave? I will drink coffee this morning with a B24 waist gunner that was shot down during daylight bombing raids over Germany and ask what he thinks about this. I’ll be willing to bet I already know. Wake up!

    • Steve carter says:

      The least of my worries? I think not! Land of the Free,Home of the Brave? Think Again my friend. How many drones do you fly? I will have coffee with a friend this morning that was shot down over Germany in a B24 and ask for his opinion but I think I know what his reply will be don’t you? Wake up!

      • John Carter says:

        Maybe you should travel back in time to when he was a kid being shot at and ask him if he would like to let a robot do the job for him and his friends.

        I love how a discussion here of using unmanned aircraft has become one where if you disagree with someone, your patriotism is immediately challenged.

        For the Homeland!

        • Steve carter says:

          Has to do with the Constitution of our Country. The man I spoke of was 18 at the time and his comment was “we gave you the Freedom so it’s up to you to keep it” and just laughed. He won’t have to deal with it very much longer. Thank GOD for their generation! What branch of the armed forces were you in? I served in the Air Force, my father , a Navy pilot WW11, my brother Navy as well. Questioning your patriotism?

          • John Carter says:

            Thanks for your service Steve. My dad was a marine, and I myself had health issues that prevented me from being an aviator. My close friends and family are out in Afghanistan and Iraq giving this “keeping our freedom” their best shot, some on their third and fourth tours.

            Right now, about 60% of our casualties in Afghanistan are from losses during resupply missions. Convoys are just indefensible in those mountains. Manned helo cargo drops are too expensive and we don’t have the resources. But the Marines are experimenting with unmanned helicopter cargo drops that are much less expensive (no armor, no aircrew, less fuel, no casualties in a loss…) than either the ground convoys or manned aircraft. The Navy just committed about $100million to further develop this technology so that the helicopters are smart enough to make basic judgement calls about landing (the program is called AACUS).

            So my generation IS paying for our freedoms, and we want to develop the best tools to do it. China and our other competitors aren’t waiting around, they are doing it too. But the lack of rules for legal use and testing UAVs in our country have been stifling our American drive to innovate and protect ourselves.

            So my problem is when 90% of the people get on here and badmouth the good work the American industry is doing to help our military and insinuate that the whole industry is a bunch of money grabbing conspirators that just want to take away our freedoms that the Greatest Generation fought and died for.

            We are the Internet generation, and we are working hard to protect the country our parents gave us. We are using all the best tools and skills we now have. This includes UAVs. Give us a chance to do our part.

  19. Frank says:

    “Yes, I have a traffic alerting system that I trust to “see” the transponder on a drone. ”


    You can’t see my Champ with your gadget – look out of the windows, Mac!

    No electronic system is an excuse for one running into another aircraft.

  20. Frank says:

    I need to follow up with more on this.

    Since you’ve admitted that you don’t follow the heart of “see and avoid” in the cockpit, I’ll stipulate there is absolutely zero difference between you or any other pilot that stares no further than the panel relying on transponders for situational awareness in relationship to other aircraft and some guy sitting in a room full of monitors 500 miles from his UAV doing the exact same thing.

    I’m far more afraid of having you in the pattern buldozing your way onto the runway with your eyes fixed on a screen than a UAV.

  21. Alex Kovnat says:

    Mac, I just spent a few minutes reading this thread and the one after it, on the matter of crosswind landings in piloted airplanes. So, here’s a question: If the FAA permits remotely piloted planes to land and take off from any of a number of general aviation airports, how well will they handle crosswinds?

    We need to prosecute operators of any aircraft, remotely piloted or not, who spy on (for example) a wealthy family with a swimming pool in their backyard and who like to swim in their birthday suits, if you know what I mean. But given that U-2 pilots are still being subjected to the physiologically hostile environment of 70,000+ feet, I would like to see remotely piloted or even autonomously piloted aircraft capable of performing the same missions as the U-2. I think U-2 jocks might like no longer having to go up to 70,000 feet where you have to wear a full-body space suit – not just an oralnasal oxygen mask.

  22. Joe says:

    Perhaps this is what ADS-B is about: More easily integrating the drones into the airspace. Could a side benefit of ADS-B be to price us weekend pilots out of the sky to make more room for the drones to spy on us? Wait until one of these things hits an airliner and kills several hundred. Apparently, one came close to hitting a Citation in Colorado last week. I never thought 1984 would come true in my lifetime, but I’m just one of those “John Birch kooks.”

  23. Hi Mac!
    I can NOT do much to top all of the UAV comments; the current Owners of Non-NPIAS Airports, might have had listed activities!

  24. roger russton says:

    So there was a human in control when the military UAV ended up in Iran?

    Obviously. Someone in Iran.

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