Drones, or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), are becoming more and more commonplace. With the emergence of any new technology, there are bound to be growing pains and safety concerns. According to FAA statistics, in 2015 there were more than 650 reports of sightings and near misses between drones and manned aircraft.
But this sort of thing is not without precedence. When the automobile was widely adopted in the early 1900s, there were few—if any—vehicular traffic laws. And for quite some time, horse-and-buggy drivers did not view these newfangled “automobiles” in a very favorable light.
But we all know how that turned out. Over time, laws, customs, and courtesies caught up with rapid technological change. Society progressed, quality of life improved, and economic benefits were realized.
AOPA and its Air Safety Institute support UAS for both commercial and recreational purposes. But AOPA also believes integration into the nation’s airspace must be done safely, with adequate training for all users, so that our air transportation system remains the safest in the world.
There’s no denying the burgeoning UAS industry has the potential to be very good for our nation’s economy. In 2015 the drone industry shipped more than 3 million units, and that number is expected to triple to more than 9 million in the next four years. Estimates also show this industry will create more than 100,000 jobs and $82 billion in economic impact during the next decade. For young people, drones have become a pathway into aviation. Their enthusiasm for UAS flight may also lead them into the cockpit of a real aircraft, something else AOPA sees as a good thing.
As UAS become part of our nation’s economic engine, there are challenges that must be overcome and problems that must be solved, and it’s easy to see why the risk of midair collisions has become a concern. Some progress is being made. Industry, the FAA, and associations including AOPA understand the importance of protecting the flying public’s safety. In fact, more than a year ago, AOPA and the Air Safety Institute signed on as a supporter of the ongoing Know Before You Fly educational campaign (http://knowbeforeyoufly.org). It’s designed to inform drone pilots of the do’s and don’ts of operating a drone.
Additionally, the FAA has taken some steps to police unlawful and reckless operations. Technology will also play a part. Whether it’s geofencing, sense-and-avoid capabilities, or some other yet-unknown technological advancement, none of these challenges is insurmountable.
Drones in many ways have become the modern-day equivalent of the Ford Model T. And just like the traffic cops of the early 1900s who were used to policing pedestrians, bicycles, and buggies, government and industry will inevitably figure out exactly what rules, regulations, and certifications are needed for drones and their pilots. There’s no doubt that we’ll get there, but it’s going to take time and careful thought on just how to achieve the right balance between personal freedoms, safety, and the potential economic rewards.
At AOPA, we see the benefits, too, and recently filed a petition with the FAA for authorization to operate a drone for commercial aerial filming and staff training purposes. As this emerging technology matures and becomes a larger part of our everyday lives, AOPA will continue to work closely with the FAA in order to make sure the rules that govern UAS are crafted in a way that supports safe integration into the National Airspace System and do not negatively affect general aviation.
As the future of aviation unfolds, AOPA will closely watch the fast-changing world of drones. In doing so we’ll be certain to safeguard general aviation, protect pilot freedoms, keep an open mind, and think proactively. While there are still a lot of questions around how best to safely integrate drone operations into the NAS, one thing members can count on is that AOPA will fight to keep the skies safe, protect access to airspace, and support efforts that help our nation’s economy and general aviation grow.
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George Perry is senior vice president of the AOPA Air Safety Institute and a quadcopter owner.