Drones? Meh.

They go by many names: UAVs, drones, remotely piloted vehicles. Whatever you call ’em, more and more of the aviation news these days seems to focus on this segment of the industry. Blogs and podcasts exclusively dedicated to UAVs have been popping up left and right, and there’s certainly no shortage of enthusiasts and businesses waiting to put these advanced flying machines to work. Or play.

It’s easy to understand the excitement. These drones are small, relatively inexpensive, easy to fly, and — thus far, at least — free from certification hassles and other regulatory burdens. They require no conventional fuel, maintenance, or infrastructure, yet can carry high-definition cameras and other payloads while exploring areas at low-altitude that even a helicopter would be hard-pressed to get to. They can loiter with less noise and disturbance than a rotorcraft, too. In short, they represent a fresh canvas for the operator’s creativity.

New models and capabilities spawn almost continuously from the designers of these micro-aircraft. It’s something those of us in the traditional aviation sectors wish we could lay claim to. I imagine the early days of the 20th century must have felt quite similar to aviation’s pioneers. The future looked limitless. “Just Do It” could have been aviation’s slogan; if you could dream it, you could build and fly it. Today? Not so much. The regulations and paperwork weigh as much as the pilot flying the darn airplane. If they aren’t, you’re probably not “airworthy”.

Drones, on the other hand? From delivering cold beer or your Amazon order to keeping humans out of harms way while fighting fires, collecting intelligence, capturing exciting video footage, and engaging in national defense, they hold the promise of improved safety and convenience for all. It’s hard not to be impressed by displays like this:

But (you knew there had to be a “but”, didn’t you?) at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. Every time I see a video, article, or link about drones, my response is “Eh. Who cares?”. I’ll probably offend some folks by saying this, but there’s something about these autonomous devices that turns my blood cold. It’s not that I hate them. I just don’t care about them.

When I think about flying, drones never enter the picture. In fact, I don’t consider operating a drone to be “flying” at all. In my mind, it’s on par with falconry, paper airplanes, kites, and sailboarding. That’s not to say it’s bad; on the contrary, some drone operators look like they’re having the time of their lives and there’s nothing wrong with that. I hold no animosity toward those who view drones and UAVs as the most exciting thing since the integrated circuit. But while there are aviation elements present, it’s not flying in the way I know and love it.

For one thing, the operator/pilot has a much different experience and perspective on flying. There’s no skin in the game when the worst that can happen is the loss of the drone. Operators are solidly anchored to terra firma, looking up at their craft the same way men have looked skyward at the birds since the dawn of time. That awe-inspiring ability to literally transport yourself and others across time and space? Gone.

There’s no physical connection to the flight controls or the invisible fluid through which the craft sails, no seat-of-the-pants experience. And how much satisfaction can you get from a smooth landing when the craft does all the heavy lifting through gyro-stabilization and computer technology? I guess I feel about drones the way some sailboat owners feel about engine-driven boats.

Perhaps the thing I see most lacking in the proliferation of drones is the sense of pride that comes from operating within any community of highly-trained professionals. Pilots definitely fall into that category. On the other hand, it’s difficult to see random individuals who happen to purchase a remote-controlled flying device as belonging to that same cadre. Especially when a typical story reads like this:

After saying “the FAA has got to be responsive to the entire industry,” [FAA UAS office chief] Jim Williams referred to a pair of incidents in which drones caused injuries to people on the ground. One came at an event at Virginia Motor Speedway in which an “unauthorized, unmanned aircraft” crashed into the stands, and in the other a female triathlete in Australia had to get stitches after being struck by a small drone.

Then, Williams segued to a pilot’s recent report of “a near midair collision” with a drone near the airport in Tallahassee, Florida. The pilot said that it appeared to be small, camouflaged, “remotely piloted” and about 2,300 feet up in the air at the time of the incident.

“The pilot said that the UAS was so close to his jet that he was sure he had collided with it,” Williams said.

Or this one:

UAV Causes Medical Helicopter Landing Delay

The landing of a CareFlight helicopter approaching Miami Valley hospital in Dayton, OH was delayed by a small UAV flying in the area, according to the company.

Television station WDTN reports that a CareFlight nurse aboard the helo was the first to spot the small aircraft flying in the vicinity of the hospital. The helicopter reportedly had a “significantly hurt” patient on board at the time.

The company notified both local police and hospital authorities in an effort to find the person operating the UAV before allowing the helicopter to proceed with its approach. The operator was taking aerial photos of a park in the Montgomery County Fairgrounds, which is near the hospital.

By all accounts, heavier-than-air flight had a definite Wild West quality about it in the early days, too. I’ll freely admit that it’s easy to paint with a wide brush where UAV antics are concerned, so maybe I’m simply being closed-minded about drones. Or more accurately, drone operators. But I feel the way I feel about it. I suppose that’s one thing drones and traditional aircraft pilots have in common: they both develop a reputation — deserved or not — based on the media’s incessant bleat of any sensational or negative news.

I’m curious to know if others have a similar reaction to the burgeoning unmanned aircraft industry. What’re your thoughts?

  15 comments for “Drones? Meh.

  1. October 1, 2014 at 3:04 am

    Ron,
    I couldn’t agree more. Anyone that has read my work knows I’m not a big fan of drones; largely because they are replacing manned missions in the military (eventually the civilian world) and I don’t want to share the airspace with them.

    I appreciate that you point out the very practical and good uses, but like you I shudder to call this flying in the sense that we know it; your examples of kiting or falconry are spot on.

    In the end I’m afraid they are here to stay, I just hope the inevitable collateral damage is kept to a minimum.

    Brent

    • October 1, 2014 at 12:45 pm

      I hope so too, Brent. Not just for our own safety as people who fly traditional aircraft both large and small, but also for the drone industry themselves. If I could give them one piece of advice, it would be to tread carefully and be as stringently self-regulating as possible. That’s one things the E-AB folks know well: the FAA gives plenty of leeway to Experimental-Amateur Built aircraft owners, but one high-profile accident and they could drop into this last bastion of freedom like a lead sled.

  2. Mike
    October 1, 2014 at 4:47 am

    I agree. It’s not as much the commercial, and mature, operators that concern me, but more the hobbyist or teenager types that don’t know (or care) about the regulations and don’t use common sense operating them especially close to airports and departure/approach paths.
    As you said, Ron, there’s already been numerous incidents and close calls with aircraft. Sooner or later there will be mid-airs with regular aircraft.

    • October 1, 2014 at 12:41 pm

      Yes, drones are quite different from traditional aircraft because anyone with a credit card can quickly, easily, and legally get their hands on one. They can be launched from any location, and there’s a sense of anonymity involved because it can be difficult to determine who the operator is. A challenging combination, and one that can tempt a drone operator to have a little “fun” or push the boundaries a bit. Sort of like a high-performance aircraft pilot making a low pass over a runway or zooming along a river somewhere. Then a power line appears or a flock of birds gets in the way and things get ugly.

      A hobbyist or teenager would find it far more difficult to gain access to a traditional aircraft because of the relatively cumbersome size and cost of those birds. I’m not anti-drone. Despite my lack of emotional connection or personal enthusiasm for them, I’m sure drones can be integrated safely, but it will take some work. And I doubt it will be a painless transition for people on either side of the equation. Mid-air concerns aside, for every legitimate use there’s a safety, privacy, or environmental concern from these flying machines.

  3. Jeff
    October 1, 2014 at 5:10 am

    Ron,

    Another comment in support of your position. The UAV is just another tool to be used for a particular task. The really frightening aspect is the lack of regulations and inherent safety issues. No pilot needs to abort a landing because Amazon is delivering something to a home near the airport, or have a midair because some jerk wants to spy on his neighbor sunbathing down the street. The UAV operators are no more pilots than the guy sitting in front of his computer using a flight simulator.

    This will tragically come to a head when there are deaths caused by a UAV interfering with a flight. The resulting mega-million dollar lawsuit will cause corporations and our do nothing Congress to demand a fix to the problem. Cynical? Maybe. Accurate? Definitely.

    Jeff

    • October 1, 2014 at 12:28 pm

      I suspect you are correct that there will eventually be a serious accident, because when drones start coming into the airspace system they are probably going to do so in extremely large numbers because of their small size, low operating cost, and affordability. The response from Congress and the media will probably be as unreasonable as it currently is when an aircraft accident occurs: the knee-jerk demand to just “do something”. Of course, that gives us things like the new ATP certification rules that wouldn’t have helped in the first place. It will have the same effect on drones: it will limit their usefulness and increase the regulatory burden of operating them.

      Have you heard about the FAA’s approval of some commercial UAVs for the film industry? I found it interesting that one of the requirements was that the operator hold at least a private pilot certificate. I assume that was to ensure the drone operator was aware of existing airspace and other Part 91 rules. When drones are finally approved for integration into the U.S. airspace system, I’m fairly confident pilot training will be a major requirement.

  4. Graeme Hatzkilson
    October 1, 2014 at 7:44 am

    Normally. I agree with about 98% of what this blog has to say. In this article however, I beg to differ strongly in opinion. Drones are beyond progressive, they are revolutionary. Drones, kites, falconry and kite-surfing all have to do with flight. Just think, if it wasn’t for these “men looking up at their craft the same way men have looked skyward to birds”, as you say, I wonder how far aircraft development would have come. Speaking of the physical connection to the flight controls and that satisfaction of a good landing, “Fiddlesticks” as MC would say. I’ll dare say it but I feel they have to do MORE with flight than a pilot sitting behind the controls of a bonafide man carrying aircraft than these drones. My first two days of kite surfing consisted of me standing on the beach trying to control the kite with the wind. One millisecond to late and I myself was flying through the air attached to the kite until I figured how to put myself down. More direct physical connection there with my hand on a yoke which is connected to the elevator.

    Think about it., the pilot of a model craft has to work MUCH harder. There is no airspeed indicator, so the aircraft can stall unexpectedly. Pilots do not have that seat of the pants indication to know if their turn is coordinated to fly it properly. The landings are all done without respect to airspeed or first person view so a good landing in a model aircraft for me impresses me FAR more than a good landing I make in a 172 with the wind down the runway. Oh, and by the way, every time you turn the aircraft your controls become reversed! Flying an R/C or drone, or paper plane to make it do what you want it to do with your so called “regulated” aircraft is far more challenging in my opinion.

    In addition to the challenges, think of all the benefits future pilots can gather OUTSIDE the craft compared to what he or she will never gather flying a full scale. These hawks, kites, and paper airplanes were the spark for me into aviation, personally. When I come CFI soon, I will encourage the students to experiment with these drones and devices. You can learn proper throttle control, what the aircraft is supposed to LOOK like in different phases of flight including landing and maybe what a traffic pattern looks like. You can’t get ANY of that sitting behind the controls of any aircraft.

    True, there is no skin in the game. You don’t get the bumps, and feelings in the stomach the same way you get when flying an RC, but it’s a similar sort of excitement. Flying a drone is to witness flight. Flying an aircraft is to BE flight. I think the marvel of flight is best when it is both witnessed and experienced. Watching flight, the beauty of a perfectly executed touchdown without any reference to any instrumentation to me is part of what gets my heart pumping.

    I think though you have a few mis- facts aboard your article. For one, you talk about business opportunities yet I can’t even use a quad copter to sell a house in real estate. Commercial use as I know it is still banned. Secondly, As for the passion, I think the comrade is on par with the pride with certified pilots. Just take a look at the message boards such as DJIpilots.com. You can see a posting every two minutes. How about the true flying we speak about. Take Bi-Planes for example – The essence of flying and what aviation is really all about. I think Bi-Plane forums.com might have one posting there a week. Third, drones are heavily regulated. They can’t fly >400 AGL, and besides the commercial ban, most of the drones won’t even switch ON within 15 NM of a Charlie or Bravo Airspace. DJI built in no fly zones where a drone won’t even lift off if it’s within 15NM radius.

    I do commend the author for recognizing the potentials for drones, “keeping humans out of harm’s way while fighting fires, collecting intelligence, capturing exciting video footage, and engaging in national defense” (and that beer delivery!)

    If there is one thing I do agree with the author on is that I think we both dislike the negative attention media gives to these drones, although I can see references to some of the annoyances these drones cause that makes me think the author feels these reports are relevant.

    I do not own a drone nor do I have any specific interest in them. I would like to operate one for photography purposes but that’s really it. I’ll do MY flying in the skies

    Am I wrong about all this?

    • October 1, 2014 at 12:20 pm

      Thanks for your perspective, Graeme. I appreciate the enthusiasm and respect you have for All Things Flying! It’s an admirable perspective, and one many people — myself included — could probably use more of. Without that, we end up retreating almost involuntarily into little cliques. Tailwheel versus tricycle. Antique versus composite. Experimental versus certified. Airline versus GA. It wasn’t my intent to do that. If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that Ben Franklin was right: we should all hang together or we will most assuredly all hang separately. Anyway, the post was intended to explore the reasons my passion for flying doesn’t extend to remotely-piloted aircraft.

      I have the utmost respect for RC aircraft pilots. I’ve tried to fly traditional remote-controlled gliders and found it very challenging, indeed! A friend of mine recently demonstrated a modern 4-motor quadcopter, complete with onboard video streaming and gyro-stabilization, and that seemed to be a bit easier to control.

      With respect to the commercial opportunities that drones provide, I was referring to their capabilities. The only thing keeping real estate agents, photographers, Amazon, and others from using them for-profit is the FAA. That’s going to change. In fact, it’s changing as we speak; the FAA just approved some commercial use of drones by film studios.

  5. October 1, 2014 at 9:34 am

    I fly out of KRME where there is a drone-testing program gearing up, more specifically, to see how drones perform with see-and-avoid with conventional aircraft. I haven’t seen any drones in the pattern yet, but I suppose it’s only a matter of time.

    I agree with your assessment that the pilot of a drone has less skin in the game; while it does require a good deal of skill to pilot a drone, it can be a markedly different kind of skill. If there’s less risk of injury to the pilot, is the pilot more apt to take a chance? This thought has crossed my mind.

    With the mentions of the drone programs at Griffiss and the like, many have commented that they’d like to use them for target practice. I have wondered what will happened if someone shoots at a conventional airplane or helicopter that’s on a low approach, thinking that it’s a drone flying above them.

    • October 1, 2014 at 12:03 pm

      You pose a couple of excellent questions, JP. While there are legitimate privacy and noise concerns from the use of drones, I certainly hope people aren’t shooting at them. As you mentioned, there’s a possibility of mistaken identity. In addition, the assailant could put persons and property on the ground at risk from flying debris, the falling drone, and the ammunition itself. When a round is fired and misses, that ordinance eventually lands somewhere at high velocity.

      The concept of a UAV pilot taking greater risks because there’s no chance of physical harm to themselves is something worth considering. The GA community has discussed this issue for years as it regards the Cirrus airframe parachute. Does the presence of the CAPS system encourage pilot to tackle conditions (like night IMC over mountainous terrain) that they might otherwise have avoided?

  6. Mike
    October 1, 2014 at 11:10 pm

    My 9 year old is a UAV pilot. I don’t think that puts him in your league at all. But I do like the comment above that these spark interest in aviation. I think it can spark interest in a lot of engineering ideas as well.

    • October 1, 2014 at 11:41 pm

      Good point, Mike. And we need more folks in both aviation and engineering if we’re going to compete with the increasingly international aircraft manufacturers like Airbus, Embraer, Bombardier, etc — not to mention the Chinese, who are buying as many U.S. aerospace companies as they can.

      P.S. Your 9 year old is probably way out of my league!

      • graeme
        October 2, 2014 at 2:13 pm

        Hi Mike. Thanks for your support. Has anyone read Philip Greenspun’s article on “How a 10 year old will out fly you in 2010” (the future I guess he means)
        http://philip.greenspun.com/flying/instrument

        It’d probably true if we turn all glass and EFIS

        • October 2, 2014 at 5:37 pm

          I’ve read just about everything Greenspun has written on aviation. He wrote that page about eight years ago, and it’s got a fair bit of hyperbole to it. I believe his point was that as airplanes become more advanced, they tend to cater to the skills developed through the use of tools like MSFS.

          While I understand what he’s getting at, I think stick-and-rudder skills are still important. Recent accidents (Colgan, Air France 447, Asiana, etc) have proven that there’s a weakness in that department.

  7. Zeke Berman
    October 11, 2014 at 6:34 am

    Well said, Ron.

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