The Dawn of Drones Why We All Need to Care about UAS

by Susan Parson, FAA Safety Briefing

I am always fascinated by the diversity of opinions and reactions to change, especially to advances in technology. Such diversity is particularly apparent in aviators’ reaction to the advent of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), more commonly (and easily) known as “drones.”

It seems to me that pilots generally fall into one of three camps when it comes to opinions on drones.

Photo courtesy Drone360 magazine, Drew Halverson

The Doomsayers

There’s been resistance to every new technology that’s ever been introduced. When books came out hundreds of years ago, there were complaints that it would destroy the oral tradition. Some of those fears were justified, but it didn’t stop the rise of the written word. And books have proven to be incredibly useful. — Jeremy Stoppelman
Once upon a time, sound was new technology. — Peter Jackson

In the case of UAS, those in the “doomsayer” department want nothing to do with drones, and they make dire predictions about several aspects of this technology:

Safety. Some of today’s hangar flying conversations now include concern about the “likelihood,” or even the “inevitability,” of a mid-air collision with a mis-flown or, worse, a “rogue” drone. It’s not hard to imagine any number of dire scenarios, everything from drone collisions with a family-laden GA aircraft to a large passenger airliner.

Possible? Anything is possible, but likelihood is a different matter because of the great care that safety professionals in this agency are putting into the development of regulations for the safe integration of UAS into the National Airspace System (NAS). The FAA investigates every single report of a possible drone collision with manned aircraft but, as of this writing, the FAA has not confirmed a single instance in which this scenario actually occurred.

Privacy. Drones do have the potential to invade privacy at an entirely new level. As I watched someone’s drone buzzing around my neighborhood on a recent trip to Arizona, I realized how easy it would be for its pilot to drop in uninvited on my patio dinner party. While some people argue that privacy is passé in the era of share-all social media, it’s fair to say that drones do bring a different dimension to privacy concerns. It is possible to opt out of social media and, if you are sufficiently motivated, to minimize your cyberspace presence. There is, however, no way the average individual can control the trajectory of a drone with a Peeping Tom pilot.

These issues are very real to all of us, and the FAA is working with other organizations and federal agencies engaged in recommended privacy guidelines.

Job loss. There are plenty of assertions that “real” pilots fly airplanes, along with plenty of predictions that drones will eventually put “traditional” pilots in the same category as dinosaurs. If that occurs, it’s still likely to be some distance in the future. Also, bear in mind that even as new technologies make current occupations obsolete, they generally create job possibilities we can’t even imagine today.

The Dozers

Once a new technology rolls over you, if you’re not part of the steamroller, you’re part of the road. — Stewart Brand
If you look at the various strategies available for dealing with a new technology, sticking your head in the sand is not the most plausible strategy. — Ralph Merkle

Nobody would accuse me of being a technophobe or a Luddite, but I confess to being among the dozers. I certainly don’t see drones as harbingers of doom, and I do see and appreciate the many useful applications of UAS in myriad aspects of modern human activity.

That said, I count myself amongst those who take a yawning “meh” view of drones. I took the online course and eventually I will probably get a Remote Pilot certificate, but I was hardly the first in line for that credential. Similarly, I have merely paged past the ubiquitous advertisements for drones and, at most, paused only briefly in front of storefront drone displays.

In defense of myself and my fellow drone dozers — you know who you are! — I hasten to emphasize that there’s nothing wrong with lack of interest in actual drone flying, or in choosing to invest my flying dollars in aircraft that still need me to occupy one of the front seat positions. What we dozers do need to do, though, is to acquire and maintain appropriate situational awareness of drone developments. We should also make an effort to get better acquainted with enthusiastic drone drivers who, after all, share the thrall that the sky holds for anyone who flies.

The Dazzled

I’m interested in things that change the world or that affect the future and wondrous, new technology where you see it, and you’re like, ‘Wow, how did that even happen? How is that possible?’ — Elon Musk
Every time a new technology comes along, we feel we’re about to break through to a place where we will not be able to recover. The advent of broadcast radio confused people. It delighted people, of course, but it also changed the world. — James Gleick

I often joke that I am bilingual in English and Airplane, which is a language, a culture, and even a distinct way of life. In a similar way, there are aviators (including at least one member of the FAA Safety Briefing team) who are “bilingual” in their enthusiastic operation of both manned aircraft and drones.

The dazzle of drones has also drawn a whole new group of people into the aviation world, pilots who are the mirror image of those whose interest (at least for now) is limited to manned aircraft. Those dazzled by drones for both their recreational and practical uses may soon outnumber the ranks of “traditional” pilots. As of this writing, the FAA registry has issued an astonishing 52,000 Remote Pilot certificates. The number of registered drones in the FAA’s Aircraft Registry already surpasses the number of registered manned aircraft. Again as of this writing, there are more than 750,000 registrations for unmanned aircraft, and only 209,000 registered manned aircraft.

FAA Remote Pilot Certificate

The Denizens

If these numbers conjure thoughts of the Star Trek Borg’s “prepare to be assimilated” domination of the universe, it may be for good reason. As with virtually every technology that has emerged in the history of human activity, people do adapt and assimilate new tools. They then use these new tools to do not only old things in new ways, but also to do all kinds of new things that old technologies could never accommodate.

As is also typical, people will adapt in different ways and at different speeds: while many of the “dazzled” took a direct leap into drones, others (like me) take a more deliberate course through the continuum of adaptation.

Regardless of your current “camp” or your pace and position on that continuum, the most important thing to remember is that we are all pilots, denizens of the same NAS who share the delight, the privilege, and the responsibility the sky gives to us all. Let us all act accordingly.

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Susan Parson (, or @avi8rix for Twitter fans) is editor of FAA Safety Briefing. She is an active general aviation pilot and flight instructor.

This article was originally published in the May/June 2017 issue of FAA Safety Briefing magazine.
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