Over the last couple weeks most major news outlets have run a story about drones interfering with airline pilots and or rescue helicopters battling wildfires on the west coast. It seems to have drummed up a bit of controversy – a brand new concept for the consumer drone industry.
Without question there are more and more drone operators flying every day. With more operators comes more bad flight practices which in turn leads to more incidents of people flying where they shouldn’t.
Intentional or not, people do, on occasion, fly drones near other aircraft.
Is this a real issue? Of course it is. Will a drone eventually collide with a commercial jet? Absolutely.
And when that collision does inevitably happen, everyone and their mother will be on CNN screaming about how they don’t feel safe on an airplane with all these drones flying around when, in reality, they have a better chance of dying in a car crash on their way home tonight.
When that shouting match does happen, it is important to remember a couple things. First, every airplane is designed to absorb a collision with a five pound bird. For comparison, the DJI Phantom (everybody’s mental image of a consumer drone) weighs about three pounds.
Second, despite what every click bait headline would have you believe, drone technology isn’t the guilty party. They may have autonomous capabilities but drones don’t have it out for airliners as these headlines would have you believe:
Paola Santana of Matternet (a company that uses drones to deliver medical supplies in third world countries) outlined this problem perfectly in an interview I did with her last year:
“The drone PR problem has to do with the use of drones, not the name of the thing. As soon as you change what you’re using them for, perception changes. That change doesn’t happen just by changing the name. A knife is a knife, right? You can use a knife to cut an apple or you can use it to kill someone. But the word is ‘knife.’ It’s a weapon but people use it in their kitchens every day.”
And just like every knife ever crafted, drones are mostly used by good people for harmless purposes.
Both of these developments are coming along, though not as fast as they probably should be.
If airline pilots want to be afraid of drones, they shouldn’t be afraid of collisions, they should be concerned about what they mean for jobs.
The one story about drones flying under the radar recently is the fact that the Goodyear blimp has been retired, in no small part because unmanned aerial vehicles can get similar aerial shots of outdoor events for a fraction of the cost and effort.
I have said it a hundred times: the entire point of drone technology is autonomy. They are flying robots designed to go from Point A to Point B and do a job, whether it’s delivering a package or taking a picture, with no human intervention.
Matternet has already begun delivering medical supplies to patients via drone. Once this process has been perfected, the next step will be medevac-ing patients to hospitals with a drone.
Think about the potential; an autonomous helicopter flying into a disaster zone would take extra human lives (the pilots) out of harm’s way, would cut down on the cost of operation (paying the pilots) and, an autonomous helicopter integrated with NASA’s Unmanned Traffic Management System would know exactly where all the other air traffic -unmanned or otherwise- would be without looking. So there would be no need to worry about other ‘drone’ interfering in the first place.
Once this application is proven, there is no need for commercial airline pilots.
Sure, we are years away from getting aboard Unmanned Airlines flight 567 non-stop service from Boston to Tokyo, but if worry about drones is going to be sewn online, let’s at least frame the concern properly.
Alan is serial entrepreneur, active angel investor, and a drone enthusiast. He co-founded DRONELIFE.com to address the emerging commercial market for drones and drone technology. Prior to DRONELIFE.com, Alan co-founded Where.com, ThinkingScreen Media, and Nurse.com. Recently, Alan has co-founded Crowditz.com, a leader in Equity Crowdfunding Data, Analytics, and Insights. Alan can be reached at alan(at)dronelife.com