It would be hard to overestimate the damage done to the drone industry by the various organizations that represent general aviation in North America. AOPA, EAA and COPA have all put the onus for sense and avoid entirely on the drone industry and claim their members have no responsibility to accommodate this growing industry. Sense and avoid, the ability of drones to “see” other air traffic, is the most challenging technical problem preventing drones from flying beyond visual line of sight. The position of AOPA, EAA and COPA has been that, since they were there first, they own all of VFR airspace.
As a result of the inflexibility of the organizations representing General Aviation, the drone industry has been hobbled. Limited to small toys, or near toys, that can only be operated within line of sight of their operator. MicroPilot has customers making drones that will fly for 24 hours, customers that make drones that can operate months at a time without anyone within 1000 kilometers. Still others make drones that can lift a 100 Kg load. All of these drones are hobbled commercially because current regulations make it extremely difficult to operate drones beyond visual line of sight. Who needs a drone that can circle your head for 24 hours?
The average North American has been hurt by the position of AOPA, COPA and EAA. They have been denied many of the advantages and reduced costs that highly capable drones could have delivered by now. They have also been denied the good, high-tech jobs that would have developed had drones been easily able to fly beyond visual line of sight of the operator. Instead of creating high-tech aerospace jobs in North America, COPA and EAA have created a lot of low and medium technology jobs in China – the world’s toy factory.
The problem with putting the onus on drones to avoid general aviation (GA) aircraft is that it is an incredibly difficult technical challenge. You have two choices: radar and vision. This is MicroPilot’s 26th year making autopilots for drones and only now are we seeing commercially available systems that claim to allow a drone to detect a GA aircraft that is 2 kilometers away.
The problem is a number of videos demonstrating vision sense and avoid systems but only detecting aircraft that are not on a collision path with the drone. Detecting an aircraft on a collision path is much more difficult than detecting one that is not. The aircraft that will collide with you looks like dirt on your windshield – it doesn’t move. The fact that no videos of an aircraft on a collision path is worrisome. Maybe the system only detects aircraft with which you won’t collide. Radar, with a range of 2 kilometers is not cheap and requires a fair amount of power and needs a frequency spectrum allocation. Both systems suffer from the fact that you need a bunch of systems to have full 360-degree coverage.
There is an easy solution to this problem that could have been implemented decades ago. The solution is that, in return for access to airspace, all General Aviation aircraft must carry a radio transmitter that continuously broadcasts its position, altitude, speed and heading. Such a system, FLARM, was designed more than 20 years ago by three Swiss engineers who were tired of mid-air collisions between gliders. This is a technically simple solution, its low cost, and reliable. FLARM is widely used in Europe and is slowly being adopted by the gliding community in North America.
FLARM is only one way to solve this problem. ADSB is also a good, albeit late, solution. If all GA aircraft were equipped with ADSB out, and Drones with ADSB in, the problem of sense and avoid becomes trivial for drones. And it is not like there is no benefit to GA equipping their aircraft with either FLARM or ADSB. It is crazy that, in 2020, mid-air collisions still occur among GA aircraft. This is such a solvable problem it is almost criminally negligent that it has not been solved already.
So, in 2020, we are in a situation where the sense and avoid problem is about to be solved with a bad system, one that potentially won’t actually keep GA aircraft safe. The Drone industry can only be ignored for so long. The complaints of the industry about lack of access to airspace are becoming louder and louder. If it hasn’t already happened, there will soon be more professional drone operators that vote than private pilots. GA also has a bit of an image problem as most pilots are white, rich, and male. The argument that a bunch of privileged citizens should “own” all of the VFR airspace for their exclusive benefit, forever, while ignoring legitimate interests of the public at large is pretty indefensible. Also, the general public will not likely have much sympathy as they think we, (I fly a C177), are poorly dressed nut cases with a death wish.
So, drones are going to be granted some sort of BVLOS permission soon and probably with a poor sense and avoid system – a sense and avoid system that doesn’t really work but allows the regulators to tick a box. Anyway, you couldn’t design a much worse system than we have right now for private pilots (i.e. see and be seen). Any new system barely has to work to be an improvement.
COPA, AOPA and EAA are 100% to blame for this situation. If these organizations had taken a more proactive approach and championed the introduction of a collaborative, radio beacon based anti-collision system ten years ago, we would be in a very different position. The Drone industry would be much more advanced than it is now, midair collisions between GA aircraft would have been a thing of the past and there would be more good, high paying jobs designing, building and operating sophisticated RPAS. Instead, they took the el-cheapo approach and focused not on the future but instead on minimizing costs (as well as benefits) for their members today.
Sad, but It is not too late to change.