Note: Find updated regulatory information in “UAS (Drone) Regulations” in the September 2016 issue of Business & Commercial Aviation to learn about the small commercial drone regulations in FAR Part 107, which went into effect on Aug. 29, 2016. The article below was published in the October 2015 issue of BCA.

There’s a revolution in unmanned aviation afoot . . . or rather, aloft.

The 24-hr. news cycle and the Internet are full of news about “drones” — public vernacular for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or, alternately, unmanned aerial systems (UASs). Sooner or later, as the recognized “aviation experts” in their companies, aviation department managers and chief pilots are likely to be asked about them by management, either because of concerns over safety, or a genuine interest in the technology for internal exploitation, or as potential product lines.

Of course, in this context, we’re not talking about the “big” UAVs like the military’s Predator, Reaper and Global Hawk now being operated in civil airspace.  The drones that are at the basis of this fast-breaking revolution are the small ones — “micros” — under 55 lb. gross weight, with the vast majority of those being multi-rotored helicopters measuring approximately 22 in. diagonally and tipping the scales at less than 3 lb. fully equipped with high-def video and still cameras on sophisticated, controllable gimbals.  And they’re in our skies (and invading controlled airspace) by the thousands. In just 24 months the nascent industry producing these mini flying robots has burgeoned — exploded, really — into a phenomenon.

Nearly all of these small UASs are powered by high-tech brushless electric motors fed by lightweight, energy-dense lithium-polymer (LiPo) batteries, technology adopted from the aerospace and radio-controlled (RC) hobby industries.

The multi-rotors are held aloft by fixed-pitch propellers, or “prop-rotors.” Most are direct drive, while a few types employ reduction gearing for lower noise signatures and the advantage of using larger, more efficient props for increased lift. With motors modulated by electronic speed controls (ESCs — again, right out of the hobby industry), these pseudo-helicopters maneuver by varying the rpm of the motors through highly sophisticated software programs informed by electronic accelerometers. The most popular configuration of multi-rotored small UASs is the X-shaped “quadcopter” in which clockwise and counterclockwise turning motors and appropriately pitched props are mounted diagonally to cancel torque and promote stability.

The need to lift larger payloads like sensor packages and digital movie cameras has spawned “hexacopter” and “octocopter” configurations, which unlike the quads, offer the ability, under some circumstances, to limp home with a motor out. Then there are coaxial octos in the X-configuration with over-and-under motors driving contra-rotating props and at least one Y-configuration hexa powered by six coaxial motor/prop combinations. Oh, and there’s a flying wing sUAS equipped with V-22 Osprey-like tilt-rotors — the FireFLY6 — that can take off and land vertically and transition to high-speed level flight once in the air.

Smartphones With Wings

As Chris Anderson, former editor-in-chief of Wired magazine and cofounder and CEO of drone developer 3D Robotics in Berkeley, California, has pointed out, today’s highly sophisticated small UASs are more like smartphones with wings (or rotors) than traditional piloted aircraft. What he means is that the technology in your iPhone or Droid smartphones is what has made the new class of small drones possible: GPS for location, height determination, along with digital accelerometers, HD cameras and video, wireless comm, high-speed data transmission and Wi-Fi capability, etc., all miniaturized to a size you can hold in the palm of your hand. (And that’s only for ergonomic and display purposes, as with contemporary chip technology, it’s possible to shrink circuit boards enabling these multiple functions to the size of your smallest fingernail — or maybe smaller by the time you read this.)

But in addition to the miniaturized hardware, it’s the state-of-the-art software that makes small drone performance a reality. So, to the functions just cited, add flight control, stabilization, autopilot capability and the ability to program semiautonomous operation or mission assignment. Brad Hayden, founder, president and CEO of Robotic Skies Network, likens the typical sUAS to “the same functionality as flight display technology that we have in contemporary avionics.”

As a result, an operator can “park” a multi-rotor sUAS in a hover and hold station within a fraction of a degree — hands off the transmitter controls — even in moderate wind conditions, a useful capability for observing, taking photos or recording video. In addition, attitude sensing allows automatic recovery to level flight in case of an upset.

And as the operator of one sophisticated quadcopter explained, “It returns to where it was launched if it loses the signal and automatically comes home when the battery starts to draw down.”

Depending on the drone and the mission assigned it, flight duration varies from 20 min. to close to an hour. However, LiPo charge duration and motor efficiency advancements promise to rapidly extend time aloft.

Programmable autonomous functions include, for example, being able to send the mini-aircraft to several lat/long locations, or operator-designated waypoints, with instructions to, say, take photos, then return to the controller’s position, and land. Or to take off, fly to a cultivated field and perform an infrared scan of the crop in a predetermined pattern and altitude. Or record a video inspection of a stretch of power lines. Some of the newer drones can even be set up to identify and follow a user — down a ski slope, for example, or while engaged in some sort of extreme sports mania — making them the ultimate “selfie” taker.

And all this is accomplished with gimbaled, gyro-stabilized cameras and sensors like the big-boy drones in military use. Thanks to high-speed data links, operators can view what the cameras “see” on iPad-like displays attached to the controllers or their smartphones. (This also enables “first-person viewing,” or FPV, where the drone can be flown out of sight of the operator, a function that is, so far, illegal in the U.S., although it is allowed in Canada, Europe and Australia.)

And there’s no special training necessary to operate one of these things. Rather, purchasers can take them out of the box, read a short manual, charge up the battery and fly them immediately, albeit with varying success.

Consumer-Level Pricing

One reason why sophisticated small drones have taken to the skies in huge numbers is that the average cost of quadcopters with features just described is $1,300, including either a proprietary or aftermarket HD still/video camera and gyro-stabilized gimbal mount. Emblematic is the Phantom 3 Professional from China’s DJI, with an advertised price of $1,259. (See http://www.dji.com)

Not to be outdone by its Asian rival, 3D Robotics introduced its Solo quad this year with advanced features that goes out the door (literally, in the video introducing it on the company’s Web site: http://www.3drobotics.com) for $1,300 without camera or gimbal.

And even those low prices are coming down due to economies of scale. The world’s largest producer of small multi-rotors, Shenzhen-based DJI, this summer introduced a variant of the Phantom series — the “Standard” — A $799 unit equipped with the company’s in-house HD 2.7K video/12MP photo camera that provides a “live view” beamed back to the operator’s mobile device of choice. (DJI also markets an earlier version with somewhat less capability for $699 sans camera but with a three-axis gimbal that accepts a GoPro camera.)

Stepping up to a small drone with industrial-level capabilities (longer flight and hover times, more programmable features, enhanced electronics, better gimbals and higher resolution photo and video cameras, etc.) hikes prices into the $2,000-$3,000 range, such as DJI’s Inspire ($2,899), which can change its configuration in flight to allow its underslung 4K video camera a 360-deg. unobstructed view.

For the heavy-lifters used by the movie industry to loft professional digital cameras, consider DJI’s Spreading Wings series of hexa- and octocopters. The largest of these, the S1000+ octo with carbon-fiber airframe and skids that swing up out of the way of its gimbaled camera, varies between $4,100 and $4,550, depending on equipage. Measuring 41 in. across and weighing up to 24 lb. with payload, these are serious machines.

No one knows how many of these UASs have been sold and are operating in the U.S., as nearly all of the dozens of companies marketing them are privately held and jealously guard their sales figures. (While most drones are designed in North America and take advantage of the Silicon Valley technology that runs them, nearly all are built in China or Taiwan.) 

Estimates vary from 80,000 to half a million drones now operating in U.S. airspace, depending on the source. The Consumer Electronics Association estimates that 700,000 will be sold to recreational users in the U.S. this year.

In the commercial realm, applications for small UASs are emerging every day to exploit the drone’s aerial point of view. A sampling of uses includes:

Aerial photography, videography and moviemaking.

Real estate: land/house inspection and photography.

Agriculture: crop survey, disease tracking using infrared and other sensors, and irrigation mapping.

Surveying and cartography.

Forestry: arboreal health surveys, firefighting and wildfire prevention (using infrared cameras to detect smoldering beneath leaf cover, spontaneous combustion or simply to determine the potential for fires).

Railroads, governments, utilities and telecommunication companies: track, highway, pipeline, wire, and cellphone tower patrol and inspection.

Construction: site inspection and progress reporting.

Insurance: allowing field agents to inspect roofs and other difficult-to-reach places.

Natural resource and environmental protection.

Surface mining site surveying.

Archeology: viewing sites from aloft or even finding outlines of ruins buried by time.

Package delivery: perhaps a long shot, but the Internet’s largest retailer, Amazon, has proposed using small drones to deliver packages to purchasers or collection centers.

News coverage: some of the first aerial footage of the chemical explosion at Tianjin, China, in August was taken by a drone.

Disaster aftermath and recovery: searching for survivors, assessing damage, delivering emergency medicine and equipment.

Law enforcement: surveillance, tracking suspects, inspecting buildings where dangerous suspects may be hiding, monitoring demonstrations, etc.

Firefighting: assessing the spread of a fire to determine where to place water, planning safe entries for firefighters and locating occupants for rescue.

Search and rescue: In one case where two boys were hung up in a raft on a flood-swollen river, a multi-rotor drone was used to carry a line to the raft. The line was then used by one of the boys to pull a larger rope to the raft so they could be pulled to shore.

Disruptive Technology

It’s obvious that most of the traditional aviation community — the FAA included — was caught off guard by the speed and exponential growth of the UAV onslaught. And it’s only just begun.

According to Teal Group market analysts, in the current decade, UAVs of all sizes and categories (civil and military) “continue as the most dynamic growth sector of the world aerospace industry.” Teal estimates that worldwide civil UAV production will total $93 billion in the next 10 years, with military drone spending adding another $30 billion.

In terms of small drones, the market leader is privately held DJI (which, by the way, stands for Da-Jiang Innovations Science and Technology Co.), founded in 2006 by Frank Wang. With a worldwide workforce of 3,000, DJI’s anticipated revenue for 2015 is projected at $1 billion, and Wang has stated that his goal is to sell more than a million of his drones a year. In April, Forbes magazine reported that DJI was seeking to raise investment “at a $10 billion valuation,” which, if successful, would make the company the world’s most valuable consumer drone producer and elevate Wang to the status of a billionaire.

In the U.S., 3D Robotics, which competes tooth and nail with DJI and is also privately held, has raised $85 million in venture capital to date, $50 million in February alone, and is expected by analysts to gross $50 million in sales this year. The company has been working with BNSF Railroad on a plan to use its Spectre professional drones to inspect 30,000 mi. of track, the Berkeley company’s first foray into an industrial application.

And companies never before identified with aviation as product lines are being attracted to the growing demand and increasing applications for small UASs. The latest is microchip manufacturer Intel, which in August announced a partnership with Hong Kong-based Yuneec (pronounced “unique”) to develop small drones as a fallback against a declining personal computer market with a $60 million investment in “next-generation technologies.” Yuneec produces electric skateboards and a line of multi-rotor drones, the newest consumer-level product being the Android-based Typhoon quad. Other emerging players include Amazon, which is developing its own line of drones for package deliveries, GoPro (also said to be working on its own drone product line), Google, and even social media kingpin Facebook. Disruptive technology, indeed.

With Silicon Valley, the premier cybernetics hub in the U.S., Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, and the University of California at Berkeley from which to draw soft- and hardware design talent, the San Francisco Bay Area not surprisingly has become the U.S. mecca for small UAS and peripheral technology development, according to the Los Angeles Times. The newspaper reported that six of the
10 commercial drone companies attracting the most venture capital in the U.S. are located there. In addition to 3DR, two San Francisco startups of note are software developers DroneDeploy (real-time irrigation and crop spraying maps) and Airware (operating systems).

Droning for Money

The FAA defines two categories of civilian small drone operators, commercial and recreational, with the latter constituting the largest number by far. And with the civil UAS regime only provisionally regulated while users and the industry await the formulation of applicable FARs, it is likely that the majority of small drone operators performing flights for compensation are unaware that they are acting illegally. Because an NTSB law judge has ruled that unmanned aerial vehicles — including the small ones — are actually “aircraft,” the FAA is now within its jurisdiction to go after any operators engaging in “commercial activities.”

The agency’s definition of a commercial operation is “holding out,” which simply means, if you sell your aviation services or otherwise accept money for them (outside of sharing expenses for a flight), you’re a commercial operator and subject to all the burdens and responsibilities elucidated in FAR Part 135 and applicable Transportation Department rules, e.g., the requirement to hold an Air Operator Certificate (AOC).

(A means test often cited in the sUAS community for determining whether an operation constitutes a commercial act is the example of a drone operator recording a video in flight. If the operator posts the video on YouTube for free, the operation is noncommercial and perfectly legal as long as the operator abides by the FAA’s recommended safe operating guidelines. However, if the operator sells the video to a television station for broadcast, it is deemed a commercial undertaking.)

But thanks to the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, there’s at least a temporary out until the agency establishes official small drone regulations. The so-called Section 333 “exemption” allows a civil drone operator to fly for money or a business enterprise to operate drones incidentally (such as a utility company using an sUAS to patrol transmission lines) without having to meet all the provisions applying to manned aircraft under the commercial rules. One requirement, however, is that Section 333 holders’ drones be registered with the FAA (that is, carry N-numbers).

With the Section 333 exemption only an interim stopgap for legal commercial operations and with the user community growing in leaps and bounds, the need for definitive regulation applying to flying civil drones in the National Airspace System (NAS) has been obvious, especially since the Reform Act mandated “a comprehensive plan” by Sept. 15, 2015.

But in 2012, with no experience in regulating UASs in civil airspace beyond see-and-avoid protocols, the FAA needed actionable data and some meaningful experience in mixing manned and unmanned traffic in the same airspace before formulating any kind of plan.

The first step was to designate test ranges around the U.S. where disparate traffic could be integrated and studied. (See “Flying Among Robots,” BCA, September 2013.) With test sites operational in Nevada, North Dakota, New York, Virginia, Texas and Alaska by 2014 — and the FAA scrambling to assemble a headquarters team and field UAS overseers — the agency announced a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) for small UASs in February this year with a 60-day commentary period and a promise to promulgate a regulation under FAR Part 107 by June 2016. The new regulation is to set forth all the requirements specific to commercial operation of UASs weighing less than 55 lb., and thus replace the Section 333 exemption.

It seems likely that the FAA has distinguished between small and large drones because it could regulate those 55 lb. and heavier with existing rules for manned aircraft, requiring them to have Airworthiness Certificates (ACs) and granting their operators Certificates of Authorization (COAs) to operate them in specific blocks of airspace. Also, it was recognized that the small UASs would be deployed in a completely different operating regime than the full-size ones and in much larger numbers.

One of the reasons for including the Section 333 exemption in the Reform Act was Congress’s insistence that small drones, which it recognized as uniquely different from the full-size ones, not be required to hold ACs. (Another reason was that the congressional solons didn’t want to impede the growth of the small drone industry by requiring manufacturers to go through the demanding process of qualifying their products for type certificates and ACs.)

Whither the Regs?

Whether the FAA can have a small drone rule in the field by next June remains to be seen, and until then it’s likely the 333 exemption will remain in effect. In early August, the agency reported that it had granted more than 1,000 Section 333 approvals for commercial operations in the U.S. of unmanned aircraft of all sizes. By the end of the month, 200 more had been added. According to the online newsletter “sUAS News,” at that time, DJI drones accounted for 45.5% of FAA-registered small UASs.

It’s enlightening to note that the 500th N-number (N588VR) assigned to a DJI drone went to Raytheon Integrated Defense Systems (its second one). Other operators using N-registered DJI drones include Northrop Grumman and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (which fields five Phantom 2s). The No. 2 manufacturer in terms of FAA-registered small UASs in the hands of customers is 3D Robotics, which has a 6.6% share.

To apply for a Section 333 exemption, the operator must essentially provide a business plan to the FAA showing how and for what purpose the drone would be used, then identify those provisions of FAR Part 61 that do not apply to operation of an unmanned vehicle, e.g., all the mentions of “pilots” and other requirements to which the operator would be unable to comply simply due to the nature of a small UAS. These, then, are the “exemptions” that the FAA will grant the applicant.

The process can be tedious and time consuming. However, there are aviation law firms specializing in drone issues that can prepare the application on behalf of the operator for fees ranging between $5,000 and $8,000 and accelerate the process of approval.

Among the rules applying to commercial operations once the Section 333 exemption is awarded are the following:

A drone’s N-number must be displayed in characters as large as reasonably possible for the aircraft.

The drone pilot must hold at least a Private Pilot Certificate and a current Class III Medical Certificate; the pilot need not be the operator holding the 333 exemption but must be familiar with small drone operating rules, and multiple qualified pilots may be hired by the operator.

Operations are restricted to daylight hours; no night flying is permitted. Ever.

The pilot, operator or a designated observer must maintain visual line of sight (VLOS) of the sUAS at all times; no flying behind buildings or natural features and definitely not beyond the horizon.

Pilots must assure their drones are airworthy prior to flight.

Small drones may not be operated in restricted, prohibited or temporary flight restriction (TFR) areas, or controlled airspace and no closer than 5 nm to an airport with an operating control tower. They also must yield right of way to other aircraft.

Maximum speed at which a small UAV can be operated is 87 kt. (100 mph).

Maximum altitude of 400 ft. must be maintained over populated areas. However, in March, the FAA chose to confer “blanket” COAs on all Section 333 holders allowing ops below 200 ft. anywhere in the U.S. except in the restricted or prohibited airspace already described and in any major city where FAA and law-enforcement agencies have prohibited such operations for security reasons. Previously, operators had to apply for COAs for specific blocks of airspace, a process that could take months.

And, naturally, no careless or reckless operations are permitted, and pilots cannot fly under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

The 197-page NPRM and its accompanying summary chart on sUASs contain some noteworthy deviations from the Section 333 requirements, including:

A maximum altitude of 500 ft.

A minimum visibility requirement of 3 sm from the control station.

No operations allowed in Class A airspace, but ops in Classes B, C, D and E may be conducted with permission of ATC, and flights in Class G airspace may proceed without ATC permission.

While a conventional pilot certificate is waived, drone pilots must be at least 17 years of age and obtain an “unmanned aircraft operator certificate with a small UAS rating,” pass an initial aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA-approved “knowledge testing center,” and be vetted by the TSA. The aeronautical knowledge exam must be retaken with a passing score every 24 months.

Unregulated Use and the Drone Safety Hazard

Meanwhile, the larger group of small drone operators, the noncommercial recreational flyers, are subject only to a set of guidelines for model builders dating from 1981 in Advisory Circular 91-57. (AC91-57A was released on Sept. 2.) This was updated in Section 336 of the Modernization and Reform Act, essentially a blessing intended to encourage model building and innovation.

When it became obvious that anyone without experience or knowledge of aviation and its protocols could purchase a sophisticated sUAS, and essentially fly it right out of the box, the FAA partnered with several industry associations, principal among them the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA), to develop the “Know Before You Fly” campaign to educate the public on safe operation of drones.

The guidelines essentially mimic the rules in the Section 333 exemption for commercial ops, e.g., 400 ft. and below, maintain VLOS, stay clear of other aircraft, remain 5 sm from airports, etc., but are entirely voluntary. Because the FAA has no mandate to regulate noncommercial small drone operators — and even if it did, the sheer numbers of such drones would overwhelm the agency’s finite number of field inspectors — the limitation of the campaign is obvious.

In truth, the only instruments for keeping amateur drone operators in line are education, peer pressure, liability considerations and criminal prosecution of malefactors — if the bad guys can be identified and rounded up. And good luck with that.

It’s no secret to anyone who stays abreast of the news that a segment of small drone operators has been responsible for an increasing number of near collisions with full-size aircraft with people aboard, often due to incursions into controlled airspace, but even in Class G airspace as well. So far, no manned aircraft crashes have been attributed to a collision with an sUAS, but a Piper Apache may have struck a drone while flying at 2,500 ft. near Romeoville, Illinois, on Aug. 27, leaving a large dent in its horizontal stabilizer. The PA-23 landed safely.

Another problem has been nuisance operation by irresponsible drone operators who pilot their UASs over accident sites to observe or photograph the action, often impeding the operation of law enforcement or emergency medical service (EMS) helicopters.

Nuisance flying can have real consequences, as when a flock of multi-rotors shows up over brush or forest fires to take videos for personal use or to sell (usually illegally) to news media outlets. During a drought-ravaged fire season in the western U.S. this year, small drone flights over fire zones prevented firefighting air tankers and helicopters from making retardant and water drops.

“Sightseeing” photo/video flights over natural wonders or urban landmarks can also present a nuisance or even endanger people on the ground. For example, in San Francisco an ongoing hazard has been presented by operators insisting on flying their UASs over the Golden Gate Bridge, where one clipped a cable and crashed on the road surface, narrowly missing a car.

It’s no surprise that the U.S. Interior Department has banned drone flying in national parks. Then there’s the case of the inebriated DJI Phantom operator — allegedly a federal employee — who flew his drone over the White House one night last January and crashed it on the boss’s lawn within probably the best-known prohibited area in the country.

The FAA’s Secret Count

The matter of near collisions with manned aircraft continues to be alarming. And it is in large part the noncommercial drone operators who are committing these reckless and irresponsible acts, like nearly knocking an EMS Bell 222 out of the sky this summer near Fresno, California. Small drones have been reported flying close to jetliners and business jets making approaches to airports, and operating as high as 12,000 ft. in Class B and C airspace. Because they are so small and without transponders, sUASs do not appear on controller’s radar or activate TCAS aboard converging aircraft.

Equally concerning has been a trend by the FAA to withhold details of the danger’s full magnitude. In an investigative report by the Washington Post published on Aug. 20, the newspaper revealed that nearly 700 of these incidents had been reported to the FAA as of that date this year — triple the number reported for all of 2014. In documents obtained by the Post, reporters learned of 12 undisclosed near-collision incidents across the country reported by pilots on Aug. 16 alone.

The FAA “has acknowledged growing concern about the problem and its inability to do much about it,” the Post stated. [BCA attempted to obtain an interview with an appropriate FAA official or have questions answered via email but the agency had not responded by press time.]

There have been moves to at least prevent some wayward drone pilots operating in a state of ignorance (as opposed to one of sociopathy) from inadvertently straying into restricted airspace. Subsequent to the drunk operator’s foray onto the White House lawn, Frank Wang at DJI had his software boffins develop a “geo-fencing” program for the Phantom series. The program, which is installed on new units and available as an update for quads delivered previously, combines GPS and a nav database to prevent the drone from flying into restricted or controlled airspace.

Explains one small drone operator, “As soon as it hits the perimeter of controlled or prohibited airspace, it will ‘slide down the side of it’ and not punch into it.”

The feature’s obvious limitation, however, is that (a) operators receiving the geo-fencing update may choose not to install it, or (b) those purchasing a new Phantom may hack into its operating system and disable it.

Additionally, technology developer Panoptes has introduced an intriguing obstacle avoidance system consisting of software and an array of sensors retrofitted on the outside of the DJI Phantom 2 and 3DR Iris+ drones that in combination detect obstacles up to 15 ft. away and auto-correct the vehicle’s trajectory, “bumping” it away. It’s dubbed eBumper4 and you can learn more about it at http://www.panoptesuav.com.

The FAA has stepped up to assist small drone operators, particularly the recreational ones, with a no-fly zone map of the U.S. and a smartphone app called B4UFly, the latter scheduled for release around now. Using it, pilots can check to see if the site where they plan to fly is restricted and even connect them with nearby airports to ensure they are sufficiently far away. Check on both the no-fly map and how to download the B4UFly app by logging onto the UAS and model aircraft pages on the FAA website.

The Terror Threat

The issue of using small drones for terrorist acts is also a concern to the government and general population. In a July intelligence bulletin, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) claimed it had recorded more than 500 cases since 2012 in which “unauthorized drones” had loitered over “sensitive sites and critical installations” including military bases.

Reportedly, the DHS has been working with state and local law enforcement agencies to develop systems to track and repel rogue drone incursions, including a microwave device intended to corrupt a UAS’s operating system and send the vehicle back to its operator. Last New Year’s Eve, the New York City Police Department tested one with mixed results, but the system is believed to have potential.

The major obstacle to curbing the rogue operator is the fact that the operator is remotely located from the vehicle and could be anywhere within the drone system’s signal range, even guiding it via FPV while out of VLOS. Thus, to be effective, an interdiction system must be able to not only take control of the UAS but also identify the location of the operator. A Reuters analysis of FAA data revealed that authorities were able to identify operators in only one in 10 sightings of illegal drone activity reported in 2014, and only 2% of the cases led to enforcement action.

Law enforcement agencies’ biggest fear is the potential for “weaponizing” small drones, and using them for malicious activity or terrorism. And just to prove that it can be done, a Connecticut teenager has installed a firearm on what appears to be a racing quadcopter chassis and successfully fired it repeatedly in a wooded area as demonstrated in “Flying Gun,” a video post on YouTube.

Other possibilities to keep you up at night staring at the ceiling include employing small UAVs to carry explosive packages and dispersal systems for chemical and bio weapons. Remember, these things are so small and so precisely controllable, they can be flown through windows and into buildings.

“Anything that you can program is susceptible to being corrupted or hacked, and the drones certainly are vulnerable to that,” says Matt Weisman, founder of Executive Air Fleet and now a board member of the Silicon Valley Chapter of the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI). “I see that as a big security issue in which the industry is lagging behind. For projects that I’ve worked on as well as some voluntary work I do with emergency services here in California, the issue of terrorism via drone and how you get one out of the sky has been discussed for several years.”

Technology is available and capable of interfering with drones’ electronics for security purposes, Weisman continued, “but there are hazards of also interfering with legitimate aircraft operations, as in a situation close to an airport or controlled airspace. Here you have something that’s programmable, there are software updates, you send it out using GPS references, and so forth. I think that manufacturers will need to educate themselves on their drones’ vulnerability and interference from malicious signals, hacking attacks, malware. All that stuff that’s threatening your computer can affect these drones. Once again here’s a job for the flight department — how are the devices in the aircraft protected?”

Weisman went on to point out that, “A well-informed flight department manager should be out in front of this. If someone is dedicated to their company, they should take a proactive role — you are helping to support the mission of the company in addition to transporting the employees.”

Brave New World

That’s the good and bad of it: a new, paradigm-changing segment of the aviation industry combining sophisticated software, robotics and miniaturization. It’s a technology that can be used to serve society or terrorize it — just as flying machines have done for the 112 years that powered aviation has existed.

Powerful new players like Amazon and Google that have thrived on so-called disruptive technology are not only embracing it but also are now pressurizing the FAA to affect a complete reorganization of airspace to accommodate the swarms of small commercial drones they intend to release.

So, a new aeronautical era is rapidly evolving and business aviation professionals need to make note, make adjustments and, in many cases, take advantage of this emergent airborne element. While flawed, it’s a technology with seemingly unbounded potential to quite possibly become aviation’s next great thing.

One wonders what Orville and Wilbur — or perhaps even electricity and computing pioneers Edison, Tesla and Turing — would have thought were they to see what science, engineering, innovation and commerce have wrought in the 21st century. 

This article was originally published on September 24 under the headline "Drone Revolution." Look for Part 2 of this story in an upcoming BCA issue.