Op-ed: Commercial UAS Industry Must Stand Up and Dispel False Narratives

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I have seen enough.

I have seen enough of the commercial drone industry and the organizations that are claiming to represent us sit silently as media pundits, government officials and everyone in between prognosticate how one horrible accident between a drone and a commercial airliner will most certainly wreck the entire commercial unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) industry.

As my late grandfather would have said to me: “Horse apples.”

A Feb. 8 article, “U.S. must prevent air accidents involving drones, lawmaker warns,” by Reuters, writing in the lead, “The commercial drone industry could be torpedoed if there were a serious accident involving a drone and a commercial aircraft … ” was my tipping point – even if it is true.

The notion that the entire commercial unmanned aviation industry will be held culpable if some idiot with a toy drone brings down a jetliner makes little sense to me. It would be like blaming the commercial shipping industry if some weekend warrior in a speedboat were to ram and (somehow) sink a cruise ship.

Enough is enough.

A drone is an aircraft just like a boat a watercraft. The U.S. Coast Guard regulates maritime vessels, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulates aircraft.

Each device is inherently innate. Both a drone and a boat need to be registered and navigated safely by their operator, and each can be placed on autopilot using available software. If the operator is uneducated, inexperienced or reckless, then problems are bound to occur.

Any new transportation technology tends to cause concern and worry when first deployed. The introduction of the “horseless carriage” once had Britain in such an uproar that a 2 mph speed limit was established and all vehicles had to be preceded by a person waving a red flag to warn other road users. Today, that cycle appears to be coming full circle with the introduction of autonomous vehicles around the globe. But at least the automotive industry is standing up for itself when concerns are raised.

I get it. A myriad of factors are at play in the aviation argument, not the least of which is public perception surrounding the safety of air transportation and the willingness of passengers to step onto a commercial jet. But that is an issue for the International Air Transport Association and others to address.

It is time for AOPA, AUVSI, the Commercial Drone Alliance and every other UAS industry stakeholder to start defending the commercial drone industry by focusing on the following key messages:

  1. Commercial UAS operations are vastly different from other types of drone flights that may be conducted by non-certified personnel.
  2. We are an industry of professional, FAA-certified remote pilots who have a vested interest in aviation safety.
  3. We will not compromise on safety. If an accident involving a commercial UAS and a manned aircraft does happen, we will investigate and learn from the incident, just as the aviation industry has throughout the duration of its 100-year history.

No one in their right mind wants to see a major mishap involving a UAS and a manned aircraft. Is an accident bound to happen at some point? It is possible. To deny that possibility would be absurd.

This is precisely why the commercial UAS industry needs to establish and communicate the line between commercial UAS operations and other types of drone operations.

All of us need to stop being excited every time we see a news story that references a drone and, instead, start working together to educate the media and the general public about the many substantial differences between commercial UAS operations and other types of drone flights.

If we mess up, then we’ll take responsibility – and we will most certainly learn from it. But let’s not subject ourselves to potential mistakes by those who have little vested interest in our industry.

If we don’t start drawing this distinction now, there is a chance that we are going to regret it down the line. Too much is at stake for us to remain silent any longer. It’s time to make our voices heard!

Christopher Todd, an FAA-certified remote pilot, is president of Airborne Response, a provider of Mission Critical Unmanned Solutions for government and industry, and executive director of AIRT (Airborne International Response Team), a nonprofit that provides airborne capabilities to help people prepare for, respond to and recover from complex emergencies and major disasters. He can be reached atctodd@airborneresponse.com.

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Stephen Mann
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Stephen Mann

It would help a lot if we started demanding verification before panic. Even after millions of hours of drone flight, there is not a single documented verification of a drone contact with an air carrier aircraft. (All other modes of aviation would be jealous of the safety record of drone aircraft).

“It’s a drone. We’re all gonna’ die!”

T Devan
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T Devan

An excellent piece of advice from Chris. Additionally, the many positive outcomes from proper, disciplined and responsible operations of UAS (in commercial, training, uniformed services) would be most convincing when told more widely by the many beneficiaries of UAS operations in their various projects. We need more beneficiaries to share the incentives and value-add they have reaped from UAS being part of their commercial ventures. There is no doubt that UAS has impacted outcomes … in reducing danger to lives and raising productivity. There is much to achieve, thanks to dedicated people in the industry and evolving technology. Keep doing… Read more »

E. Jay Fleming
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E. Jay Fleming

I think we get a little carried away with the drones and aircraft thing. We have thousands of bird strikes each year damaging aircraft, some seriously enough to cause a crash. If a terrorist want to bring down an aircraft a high powered rifle, a flock of pigeons, or a big sling shot at the end of a runway could bring down an aircraft.

There really should be a weight rating for recreational drones between .5 and 2 pounds, and drones 2 pounds to 55 pounds.