I wrote the following email last month to the host of an aviation podcast I listen to, when he asked for feedback from listeners about whether airshows should have drone sections, which some have started to do. A few weeks later, AOPA, which I joined last year when I started flight training, made news in aviation circles with their decision to invite drone operators to be members. With the status of drones in aviation a hot topic right now, I decided to post the letter I’d written here. I’m relatively new to both worlds, so that’s the perspective that I come to this with: I’m not so entrenched in one or the other as to have a tribe to root for, but I’m not so much an outsider as to have no concept of the issues involved.
I’m also a systems analyst by training and my habit when it comes to a transitional period like the one we’re in currently is to try to figure out what the core economics imply for final state of the system. In this case, that sure seems to imply an eventual inevitable end of most commercial manned aviation, though it will take to while to happen. Given that future, my concern then becomes what can be done to either postpone the end of manned aviation, or to leave a space for it in the airspace at least for recreational purposes.
Here’s the email.
As preface, I have a foot in both worlds. I have been flying a drone recreationally for about a year now and I earned my FAA commercial drone rating on the second day it was available last year, but I also just did my first solo toward my Private Pilot on Friday. (In a Grumman Cheetah). I’m in my late thirties and in my case, flying the drone rekindled something I had forgotten about and not seriously considered in my earlier youth. Drone flights in the park led to flight simulators, led to a discovery flight.
It will take a while, but it seems inevitable that drones or drone-like things scale up and become manned. The three worlds of little toy and mission-specific drones, autonomous flying vehicles like the ones that Uber and Google are working on, and traditional GA will cross-pollinate and converge and it will become harder and harder to draw lines that cleanly separate this from that. Nobody is going to need a pilot certificate to take a flying Uber and most people don’t need a pilot cert to fly a drone (but even if you do, and I speak from experience, it’s much cheaper and easier to get than Private or even Sport pilot, and I don’t see that changing). So these things do and will have a much lower barrier to entry once they are developed. That means there will be a lot more people using and piloting drones and taking a flying Uber than people getting a traditional GA rating. The difference in scale will just be staggering.
Maybe that means fixed-wing GA goes away eventually, but I hope it doesn’t. There is an opportunity here for the GA community to welcome drone operators and operations, build relationships and participate in extending and updating rules and norms so that everyone can coexist. I think having all three communicating and sharing space and experiences with each other, like at an air show, is going to be important to that. If GA as a community tries to ignore drones as “something else”, I don’t think that’s going to end well for GA, because there will be a lot more of them than us, and the tables could easily turn: we’re concerned about drones in the airspace, but there will come a time when the general public starts to become concerned that these non-automated, human-piloted aircraft are a danger to their safe airborne Uber. I think we’d better do what we can to be a “we” instead of an “us and them” before that happens. We have an opportunity to forge great relationships across the gap here and help create some kind of future for GA, or to ignore the coming changes and let GA become something people used to do.
But don’t even get me started on whether there should be a car show at an air show. Or what a flying car means for that question…