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March 19, 2015

Dawn of the Drones

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What does the military loves, Amazon covet and millions of civilians own? The answer is drones, otherwise known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).  Not since the dawn of manned flight more than 100 years ago, has a topic so enthralled the public and worried the federal government.  The FAA currently has its hands full trying to manage the booming airline industry where 21stcentury jumbo jets are still being vectored to all the cardinal points of the compass by 1970’s technology.  The last thing they want to have to wrestle with are potentially tens of thousands of UAVs crisscrossing the friendly skies.  It’s one of the things that give bureaucrats indigestion.

This Ain’t Your Granddaddy’s flying box kite. 


Ryan Firebee was a series of target drones/unmanned aerial vehicles. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ryan Firebee was a series of target drones/unmanned aerial vehicles. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Unknown to many is the fact that it was a bureaucrat by the name of William P. McCracken, Jr. that received the country’s first pilot’s license on April 6, 1927.  That was only a month and two weeks before Charles Lindbergh made the first solo crossing of the Atlantic on May 21.  As assistant Secretary of Commerce for Aeronautics, he had offered the honor of the first pilot’s license to none other than Orville Wright, who declined being that he no longer flew.  McCracken, who had earned his wings flying in the Army Air Corps during the First World War, followed by a stint flying mail, had helped enact the Air Commerce Act of 1926.  This legislation not only regulated the training and licensing of pilots, but it helped establish and manage airports, navigation aids, issue airworthiness certificates for aircraft and investigate accidents.  In short, it established the framework for the agency that would start off as the CAA and eventually evolve into the FAA we know to this day.

Fast Forward Nearly 90 Years

Ninety years later, we have come to the dawn of a new age of aviation, brought about by the same military that introduced aviation to the masses way back when.  While relatively a recent innovation in the eyes of the public, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles have been around for nearly as long as there have been aircraft.  The first pilotless aircraft were constructed from surplus military biplanes fitted with radio controls and packed with high explosives.  Kind of a poor man’s cruise missile, these aircraft were designed to be piloted to altitude, where the pilot would engage the radio-controlled autopilot before bailing out.  Then the plane would be flown by a pilot in another aircraft whose job it was to guide the plane to the target.  While initial tests were carried out during WWI, it wasn’t until WWII that the technology was deemed flight worthy.  Even then there were a number of accidents, such as the one that claimed the life of Joe Kennedy Jr. when his B-17 loaded with Torpex explosives detonated prematurely, killing Kennedy and his copilot, Lieutenant Wilford John Willy.

UAVs saw use as everything after the Second World War, from aerial targets to the first fledgling reconnaissance drones.  These spies in the sky were used extensively during the Vietnam War, with the USAF 100th Strategic Reconnaissance wing launching 3,435 Ryan Lightning Bugs that were used as aerial scouts.  (554 of these were lost during the war in Southeast Asia.)  But it wasn’t until the 1980’s that the military had an epiphany that gave them a whole new mindset when it came to embracing the true capabilities that UAVs represented.

The next quantum leap came courtesy of the Israeli Air Force which took to using a fleet of Ryan Firebee drones they had purchased from the U.S. to trick Egypt into firing off all their surface-to-air missiles at these UAVs at the outset of the 1973 Yom Kippur War.  This made routing the defenseless Egyptian’s seem like child’s play.  In 1982, the Israeli’s soundly defeated the Syrian Air Force by once again using UAVs in a number of tactical roles, including being deployed as decoys, aerial jammers and surveillance birds.  Their Scout UAV was the first to transmit live video with a 360-degree view of the terrain below.

The U.S. used Pioneer UAVs developed by Israel during the first Gulf War to observe Iraqi troop deployment.  In one famous incident, a Pioneer launched from the deck of the battleship USS Wisconsin, observed Iraqi troops surrendering following the bombardment of their trenches by the ship.  This led the US to develop a new class of military UAV starting with the Predator.  At first used exclusively as an observation platform, it didn’t take the military long to figure out that the Predator was a platform big enough to hand ordinance.  The armed version of the Predator, which can carry two Hellfire Missiles, was designated the Reaper.

Take me to your leader

Soon it seemed every military contractor was creating all manner of UAVs from vertical takeoff quadcopters, to drones that could be carried onto the battlefield in a backpack by troops, to miniature bugbots that could stealthily infiltrate buildings, to world traveling autonomous UAVs that can stay airborne for days or even weeks at a time.  A number of these odd looking aircraft were mistaken for UFO’s when spotted at low altitude by the public.

UFOs have, since the 1950s, become common fodder in newspapers, on TV and in the movies.  In more than one motion picture, alien lifeforms descended from their spaceship only to demand, “Take me to your leader.”  While this has never happened in real life, it was only last month when our current Commander in Chief got a taste of what an alien invasion could be like when a UFO landed on the White House lawn.  That’s because on February 2, a DJI Phantom quadcopter crash-landed in front of the White House.  The UAV in question, which was owned and operated by a US intelligence agency employee, purportedly malfunctioned.  The President, not to mention the Secret Service was not amused.

Better Late Than Never?

Now that the public at-large has access to an ever growing armada of consumer UAVs, you would think that the federal government would be rushing to legislate the training, operation and regulation of drones.  And you would be wrong.  The FAA’s rules for the operation and certification of drones are to date some four years late.  Originally the aviation authority had set a date of March 10, 2011 as the inception date for the establishment of regulations that among other things, would designate where, when and how high drones could fly.  But as of the date of this publication, the FAA is still asleep at the controls.

Courtesy of

Courtesy of

Sad to say it, but as drones of all shapes and sizes continue to proliferate, there is no way for a U.S. citizen to obtain either a private or commercial drone pilot’s license.  Meanwhile the skies are quite literally abuzz with consumer drones.  Aside from rankling the president, there are clear safety issues associated with fleets of unregulated UAVs.  While military UAVs such as the predator are responsible for an increasing number of deaths, it is only a matter of time before a consumer drone causes, either intentionally or unintentionally, a fatality.

Unregulated Drones Being Flown by Untrained Pilots? 

Here is the problem: Unregulated drones being flown by untrained pilots can easily come into conflict with civilian and commercial aircraft.  A number of consumer drones have the ability to fly hundreds or even more several thousand feet high.  Everything from helicopters to aircraft taking off and landing could be damaged or even brought down should a drone inadvertently stray into their flightpath.   (Everyone remembers how U.S. Airways Flight 1549 was forced to ditch in the Hudson River in January 2009 when it crossed paths with a flock of geese.)

A blog from best sums up public opinion: “As the delays have mounted, drone enthusiasts have grown increasingly frustrated with the FAA. In a press conference this morning, transportation secretary Anthony Foxx and FAA administrator Michael Huerta both refused to say when they thought the new proposed rules might actually be implemented–probably because it could take years. Foxx and Huerta also dodged questions about how the FAA would even be able to know if rules are being violated. Huerta said the FAA’s first focus is on ensuring people know what the rules are.” 

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Commerical drone operators have been flying on the edge of lawlessness.  To fly a UAV legally in this country currently requires a commercial operator to apply for and receive an exemption.  Since September 2014 the FAA has issued a grand total of two dozen exemptions to commercial operators.  This is a fraction of the 342 applications received.  Even more bizarre is the government’s current requirement that every applicant have a private pilot’s license.  Since there is a huge difference between flying a light plane and a drone, this is just another clear-cut case of bureaucracy run amok. Far from being stymied by the Herculean task of studying the myriad of ways that commercial operators could employ UAVs, an internal FAA cost-benefit study recently leaked to the press only considered four uses for civilian aerial drones: aerial photography, search/rescue, bridge inspection and precision agriculture.  Clearly anything that saves lives or helps feed the world is a good thing. However, this particular study only covers the tip of the UAV iceberg. It just goes to show how ill-equipped the federal government is when it comes to dealing with the biggest innovation in civilian aviation since the Wright Brothers first flight.

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As civilian drones literally fly off the shelves, the FAA effort appears to be all but grounded.  Two weeks ago, the agency proposed that commercial operators pass a written test every two years.  They also proposed restricting that commercial operators always maintain eye contact with their aircraft and that drones be restricted to an altitude of no more than 500 feet and a speed of no more than 100 mph.  They also wish to restrict drones to daylight hours and they want to keep them from flying over anyone not involved in their use.  This means that commercial operators would literally be precluded from flying over any place where crowds gather, which would mean that you can forget about using drones as delivery vehicles.  (Sorry Amazon.)

Enforcing the rules, however, is another matter.  A recent article from the NY Times stated that, “Regardless of what the final rule says, the F.A.A. could find it difficult to enforce the regulation. It will have to rely on complaints from the public and local law enforcement. Also, the agency, which is in the middle of a major upgrade to the nation’s air traffic system to reduce congestion, may not have enough resources to monitor the thousands of drones that could take to the sky once this rule is finalized in the coming months. The agency has about 7,200 employees in its aviation safety division, a number that has not increased much in recent years.”

It is obvious rules and regulations for the safe operation of civilian UAVs is necessary. Civilian drones are here to stay.  As their prices continue to fall and their flight characteristics continue to climb it is clear that doing an ostrich impersonation is hardly going to make the problems inherent in the growing fleet of civilian drones go away.  All it makes you want to do is

Let’s hope that the FAA adopts some of the more sensible rules that are mentioned in this article.


Carl Weiss has been working the web to win since 1995 and has helped hundreds of companies increase their online results. He is president of W Squared Media and co-host of the weekly radio show Working the Web to Win which airs Tuesdays at 4pm Eastern on Click here to get his latest book "Working The Web to Win: When it comes to online marketing, you can't win, if you don't know how to play the game!".