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At the risk of droning on about a topic my pals David and Max at the UAV Digest show are getting tired of hearing, I just think it’s time to come clean. I really do think drones, UASs, or RPVs or whatever you want to call them, are really pretty incredible technology. And like David and Max, I think their future is set in stone … even here in the United States.
There is just one teensy little piece of the conversation that drone builders and operators seem to be avoiding in the constant push to let the drones fly. How do we safely separate remotely-operated drones from people-carrying airplanes?
We expect a new rule on commercial drones from the FAA by year’s end. But my guess is that will only cover the barest minimums like operations below 400 feet and within line of sight of the operator. Those kinds of model-airplane like guidelines might work too if drones keep well clear of airports.
I met a helicopter pilot from Alaska earlier this year who told me he’d had more than a couple of close calls with drones on the North Slope. Who was operating them, no one knew. He just knew they were too darned close for comfort.
In Australia last week, firefighters operating both aircraft and helicopters said they’d had so many near collisions that they’re planning on pulling out of a fire scene if there’s even the mention of a nearby drone.
The real missing link in this drone puzzle is that practical technology to sense-and-avoid other traffic, the roll normally played by pilots looking out the cockpit windows, doesn’t exist. Sense-and-avoid technology is a must-have too if drones and manned airplanes are ever going to operate in the same airspace safely because ATC radar doesn’t seem to see drones at all. Luckily, there haven’t been any drone / aircraft mid air collisions … yet
So to all you drone builders and operators out there, I’m really with you on these things. We pilots and air safety geeks don’t want to shut you out … honest.
Without a universal miracle tool packed inside each and every drone however, one that protects the flying public from drone drivers operating somewhere safe with a joystick and a laptop, expect pushback against drones – plenty of it too. Right now the push is only coming from a few pilots and industry organizations. But when passengers realize the real threat they’re facing, the conversation will become much, much louder.