In the past decade, much has been said about the use of drone technology, particularly its use in combat. More recently, the filibuster by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., questioned privacy and other concerns as this technology is deployed domestically.
As with many breakthrough technologies developed for and by the military, drones are now being repurposed for peaceful purposes.
Drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, have proved effective in achieving military objectives while keeping our war-fighters safe. They also capture the collective imagination and possess a “gee-whiz” factor that stokes curiosity and a new era of possibilities.
Last year, President Barack Obama signed into law the Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act, which, among other things, set the stage for greater drone proliferation.
From the time the law was enacted, the FAA has received a number of petitions from public entities seeking to start their own unmanned aerial vehicle programs, primarily for law enforcement purposes. The agency also began the selection process to set up six separate test sites across the country.
The private sector is not far behind. Entrepreneurial minds are devising plans to use drones to help farmers mind crops, landlords spot intruders and doctors deliver lifesaving medications.
Our firm represents two airline pilot unions whose employees are responsible for the safe transport of nearly 300,000 passengers every day. These professionals, many of whom are former military pilots, are no Luddites — they embrace technological change so long as it is adequately tested and proved effective.
At this point, drone technology is not suitable for use in civilian airspace as it fails to meet modern safety standards. Pilots and other air safety advocates have petitioned the FAA to use the same methodical, time-tested approach to developing comprehensive safety standards before drones operate within U.S. airspace.
Some industry officials will undoubtedly argue for a fast-track approach; however, there is too much to consider, and too many things that can go wrong with the technology as it exists.
Despite their effectiveness, drones are still accident-prone. A report from the National Business Aviation Association found that the most advanced drone aircraft suffer from an accident rate 100 times higher than modern airliners.
Regulators, industry officials and the public should be concerned about midair accidents, which are rare but not unthinkable. The pilots we represent train extensively to avoid these incidents. However, a 2011 accident involving a cargo plane and a drone in Afghanistan demonstrates that the potential for collisions remains.
Operational performance and potential for collision are items that the Government Accountability Office cited in a report recently sent to Congress. The GAO also noted vulnerability to electronic sabotage — citing the case of a University of Texas professor who hacked into and took control of a Homeland Security aircraft midflight.
Pilots consider safety their No. 1 priority, but they are also concerned about the effect that unmanned technology will have on the profession.
Over the years, the number of professionals needed in the cockpit to safely transport people and cargo has diminished, but the demand for qualified personnel has not.
Aircraft manufacturers and airlines may be tempted to replace one or both pilots with remote flying systems — a prospect that makes it possible for a pilot to be thousands of miles away from a flight he or she is commanding.