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:
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?