While the blossoming world of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) is making its mark around the globe, the U.S. is lagging behind without a regulatory framework to guide safe operations. Although it is feasible for the U.S. to eventually get up to speed with other countries, it will not happen without a concerted effort among those who want to make it happen.
During a panel discussion at the recent UAS Industry Days conference, sponsored by the Northeast UAS Airspace Integration Research Alliance, NUAIR executive director and general counsel Larry Brinker made a particularly notable statement: “Public perception will drive the regulators. Nothing else will.”
He said regulators will not be inclined to accept UAS if the majority of the country does not accept them first. Once more people are on board with the idea, there will be more people to put pressure on the regulators to drive the rules for safe operations, Brinker explained.
But what will it take for more people to realize the potential of UAS? According to Lawrence Hall, principal engineer of the aircraft group at Moog Inc., the vehicles will sell themselves.
“Our system flies better than any pilot could,” Hall said at the panel, where he explained that the mere idea of these high-tech machines, which can perform operations better than humans can, should be enough to spark a person’s interest.
Sparking that interest comes from educating the public, Brinker said, and that includes changing the connotation of the word “drone” from being a military weapon or spying machine. Brinker expressed his gratitude for Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who has been advocating since last year for his delivery-by-drone idea and, therefore, bringing light to a potential drone use that would benefit a broad spectrum of people: anyone who shops using the online retail giant.
The public’s recognition of UAS as beneficial rather than harmful, all panel members agreed, comes from how they are portrayed in the media. Michael Hogan, business development manager at Flyterra, believes UAS success stories are going to drive public interest, as well as interest from companies looking to invest in the industry.
Although some hobbyist operations have been the culprit of not-so-successful stories (e.g., crashes in national parks and alleged near misses with manned aircraft), Hogan is supportive of the hobbyists because he believes we may be able to learn a thing or two from them; having the label of “commercial” rather than “hobbyist” does not necessarily denote more experience for the pilot, he said. Brinker noted that although most hobbyists do fly UAS in a safe manner, many “push the boundaries” of what is allowed for them under Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations, which he said have mostly worked well but need to be updated.
When asked what should be done about the people who do not operate UAS safely and, therefore, give the aircraft a bad rep, Brinker’s response was that you cannot stop the bad actors; you can only hand out consequences for their actions. He also stressed the importance of integrating UAS into the FAA’s NextGen air traffic control system in order to keep what he called “horror stories” about UAS collisions from erupting in the news.
Once people recognize the benefits UAS can bring to the table, Brinker said, they will put pressure on the government to give operators the opportunity to make it happen.
Mike Novakowski, director of business development and investor relations at CenterState CEO, called for “gentle pressure relentlessly applied.” He projects that by 2018, people will not give a second thought to seeing a UAV overhead.