If I asked you to name one noteworthy event from the year 2009, what would it be? For some, it might be the “Miracle on the Hudson,” Captain Sully Sullenberger’s heroic action in safely ditching US Airways Flight 1549 into the icy-cold waters of the Hudson River. Who could forget the image of its passengers perilously perched on the wings, safe and waiting to be rescued?
But how many of us would remember 2009 as the year when two entrepreneurs created Uber — the ridesharing platform that would ultimately define a new way of conveying passengers from one location to the next? Applauded by riders for its convenience, flexibility, and cheaper prices, this new entrant to our roadways was initially perceived as a threat by traditional taxi drivers. In their view, Uber drivers were getting a “free ride,” by not being held to the same regulations as their well-established counterparts. Characterized by a famous comedian as “hitchhiking with your cell phone,” Uber was scorned as a safety hazard by anxious cabbies who feared that this popular new service would eventually take away their jobs and livelihoods.
Share the Road
Notwithstanding these dire predictions, Uber now drives (ahem) a wide range of valuable services to the public. It provides options and greater access to transportation, reduces the number of household vehicles on the road, adds mobility for persons with disabilities, and supports the traditional taxi network with beneficial services such as food delivery, pet transport, and sober rides that help keep drunk drivers off the road. Uber and similar ride-sharing companies serve as a supplement to existing transportation services, creating new, free-market gig economy driver jobs and countless small business opportunities that are profitable and sustainable, adding growth to the U.S. economy. Ride-sharing companies are here for good, and for our good, delivering value to everyday lives. As lawmakers work towards consistency in regulations for taxi and ride-sharing services, the objective is to safely integrate both operations to share the road safely.
Rise of the Drones
When it comes to unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), commonly referred to as drones, we’re in a familiar place with familiar rhetoric. Drones bring significant commercial value to our lives by revolutionizing activities like package delivery, pipeline inspection, and emergency response. By 2024, we could have as many as 800,000 registered commercial drones. That’s twice the number of commercial drones we had last year. But if we’re going to realize the vision of expanded drone operations, just like traditional aviation, this industry must show that it can be safely integrated into the National Airspace System (NAS).
Traditional pilots of manned aircraft have expressed concerns about the potential safety risks posed by these new entrants to the skies. Not unlike the case for the taxi drivers, drones are perceived as more of a nuisance than an aircraft. There are reports of drones flying where they shouldn’t be, around aircraft, on runways, and potentially interfering with safe airport operations.
To address these concerns, the FAA created the part 107 small UAS rule to increase safety and minimize operating risks. New regulations were created for recreational drone users, including the requirement to pass The Recreational UAS Safety Test (TRUST), to demonstrate their understanding of aeronautical safety knowledge and rules before takeoff. The agency also published the Remote ID rule, requiring drones to provide identification, altitude, and location information (a digital license plate) to support the finalization of other rules for expanded drone operations such as package delivery, operations over people, and night operations. But to do this safely, the FAA is working with industry to research detect and avoid capability either onboard the UAS, with ground-based systems, or from a third-party provider, to enable the safe integration of more complex drone operations with traditional, manned flights.
Air Support Tools
As we safely integrate, not segregate, these new entrants into the NAS, we can seize the benefits that drones provide as useful air support tools to not only perform jobs more safely and efficiently, but to increase situational awareness in dangerous conditions where we wouldn’t want to send a manned aircraft. We currently use drones to help and even save lives in a variety of situations such as public safety, law enforcement, search and rescue, damage assessments after weather events, crop monitoring, and disaster response.
Drones are making the public and first responders safer. They’re plunging into active hurricanes to measure wind speed and capturing the after-effects of forest fires and tornadoes. In 2018, State Farm Insurance operated over people and beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) to conduct damage assessments following hurricanes Florence and Michael. As part of the FAA’s UAS Integration Pilot Program (IPP), a three-year effort to advance more complex drone operations, the Chula Vista Police Department started using drones to enhance the safety of its officers and the community by providing a pre-arrival assessment of the situation when they respond to 911 calls. For the first 1,000 missions, average on-scene response time was reduced from about six minutes to 2.2 minutes for priority calls. The drones also provided information for dispatchers to determine the number of units to deploy, pinpoint the location of a suspect’s discarded firearms, and follow vehicles under pursuit throughout the city.
As we navigate through the COVID-19 public health emergency, drones are helping people by delivering vaccines, medical equipment, and PPE to frontline workers. On-demand drone delivery companies like Flytrex and Zipline are supporting COVID-19 response efforts in North Dakota and North Carolina.
Hey Google, Did Alexa “Move My Cheese?”
Even with all the benefits that drones provide in the public realm, the “buzz” is all about the negative effect they could have on the aviation job market. To borrow an analogy made famous by the book, “Who Moved My Cheese,” a best-selling guide to dealing with change in the workplace, traditional pilots fear that drones will “move their cheese.” In other words, there is a false belief that drones will eventually replace traditional pilots with faceless robotic automatons. But even as tech advances and changes, aviation remains a people-oriented business. Take the autopilot, for example. It’s a useful support tool designed to automate tasks and reduce a pilot’s workload, but it still needs a skilled human to monitor and operate it. Try asking Alexa to make a go/no-go decision! She (it) can’t think on her own or match human experience and decision-making.
The reality is that drones are not performing the same jobs as traditional pilots. They’re creating entirely new ways to solve practical problems that might otherwise be insolvable or dangerous for people and pilots to perform. They provide new pathways to pilothood, both for those with existing pilot qualifications and for people who are just stepping into the world of aviation. New and exciting job opportunities, such as aerial photography and videography, bridge, rail, and utility inspection, wildlife management, and public service and rescue have opened up that have never before been considered or even thought possible.
Through the FAA’s IPP program, United Parcel Service and WING became the first FAA-certified air carrier operators for drone package deliveries in the United States. WING is partnering with local business to deliver products to people’s homes in Christiansburg, Va. They also partnered with a school this past summer to deliver library books to kids staying at home. And UPS Flight Forward is delivering prescription medications to residents of a large retirement community in central Florida so that residents with a high risk of complications from COVID-19 do not have to go out. Amazon’s Prime Air part 135 certification was recently approved for drone delivery operations. Soon, we will fully realize the potential of Advanced Air Mobility, where a highly automated unmanned aircraft could transport a person or cargo across town or even between cities.
There’s no shortage of innovation when it comes to drones. The technology is not only having a positive impact on society, but it’s also providing a huge boost to the U.S. economy. Estimates indicate it could generate $84 billion and create more than 100,000 new jobs over the next 10 years. Drones are here for good, and for our good, so we must continue to safely reap the many benefits that drones have to offer.
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Notes: Excerpts taken from “The Air Up There Podcast.” The FAA does not officially endorse any goods, services, materials, or products of manufacturers that are referenced in this article.
Jennifer Caron is FAA Safety Briefing’s copy editor and quality assurance lead. She is a certified technical writer-editor in the FAA’s Flight Standards Service.