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Waypoints: This genie won’t go back in the bottle

Unmanned progress needn’t threaten our freedom to fly

The ship has sailed. The train has left the station. The genie is out of the bottle. There are many idioms that can be applied to what is happening in aviation regarding developments around drones and autonomous flight. Even drones flown within line of sight raise the ire of pilots who believe that such flights should be stopped.

I shouldn’t be surprised by such comments—and yet I am because I just don’t see how someone could believe that genie could be put back into the bottle. Drones have proven to be useful in many circumstances, from commercial photography to firefighting or search and rescue. There are millions of them in existence, including 1.7 million registered with the FAA. About 500,000 of those are operated commercially and another 1.2 million are operated recreationally. In other words, eight times as many unmanned aircraft are on the FAA registry as traditional aircraft. To date the FAA has issued 191,570 remote pilot certificates.Pilots, especially helicopter pilots, are concerned about safety—and rightfully so. Although there have been few documented collisions between manned and unmanned aircraft, the threat is real, which is why everyone involved is working hard to establish procedures that allow safe operations for all.

Currently, with few exceptions, civilian drones can only be operated within line of sight of an operator and at low altitudes. Anyone operating a drone near an airport must obtain an ATC authorization. Of course, not everyone follows the rules, thus the headlines we occasionally see about airline pilots reporting drones near their flight paths at major airports—reports that have been known to shut down airports for hours on end.

As unmanned aircraft continue to develop, including those designed to ultimately carry passengers, the goal for most is to be able to fly beyond line of sight of an operator or, ultimately, to fly autonomously—in other words, they can fly from point A to B by themselves.

In efforts to keep pilots informed about such developments, AOPA reports on these test flights, which occur in highly controlled environments and through close cooperation with the FAA. Such reporting, though, often generates negative comments and calls for AOPA not to write about these subjects because the commenters somehow believe that if we just ignore them, the “threat” of drones will go away—whether that is a safety threat or a threat to pilot flying jobs.

For example, after we recently reported on AOPA Live This Week about Reliable Robotics conducting an autonomous flight in a Cessna 172 and Caravan, several pilots commented negatively on our reporting, seeming to suggest that us simply talking about it somehow made it more likely to become a regular thing in the ATC system. Here’s an example of a comment on our YouTube channel: “Why would we give publicity to a company literally trying to take away pilot jobs in the airline, corporate, and 135 industry by making airplanes 100 percent autonomous capable.”

Burying our heads in the sand (I’m not quite out of idioms) will not stop this progress. Electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft are advancing. And while most will be piloted to start, companies with big budgets are working hard to free up that pilot seat to put an extra paying passenger on board. And I believe they ultimately will be successful—but not for years to come.

AOPA is on the Drone Advisory Committee, which advises the FAA on how to safely integrate unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) into the national airspace system (NAS). And AOPA staff have been on committees working closely with NASA and other global representatives to develop a special low altitude air traffic control system that would allow the safe operation of such aircraft in the same environment where GA airplanes and helicopters might be. AOPA’s position on UAS hasn’t changed in decades. It requires that UAS not be allowed into the NAS until they can safely separate themselves from other aircraft, and that no equipage burden be placed on GA aircraft to make that happen.

While the progress is interesting, it is slow. We are years away from wide-scale implementation of such systems, despite headlines you may have seen about eVTOL soon darkening the skies over our cities. We will keep reporting on trends in the UAS space because for some it is inspirational. For those who feel threatened, know that our reporting stems from AOPA’s involvement to make sure that we’re all protected before UAS becomes widespread. After all, we don’t want to put the cart in front of the horse and we certainly don’t want the tail wagging the dog.

Email [email protected], @tomhaines29

Thomas B. Haines

Thomas B Haines

Contributor (former Editor in Chief)
Contributor and former AOPA Editor in Chief Tom Haines joined AOPA in 1988. He owns and flies a Beechcraft A36 Bonanza. Since soloing at 16 and earning a private pilot certificate at 17, he has flown more than 100 models of general aviation airplanes.

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