Drones, Airspace and Liberty – How Are They Compatable?

“Owning a drone does not a pilot make.” ― Alex MorrittImpromptu Scribe
I am an Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certified private pilot.  This is one of three FAA airmen’s certificates I hold :
  • The first one I earned was the Control Tower Operator (CTO) when I certified as a controller at the Wichita Airport Traffic Control Tower in 1990.  I had been a controller for 15 years prior but at an EnRoute Radar Center.  This and radar only terminal facilities do not receive CTO certificates because there is, well, no tower control involved in that type of control. In fact, because I began at the Center, I was not even aware there was such a certification until I needed it! Passing the CTO exam is a big deal, so the fact i did it later in my career makes it special to me.
  • The second airman’s certification I earned was my private pilot, single engine land.  This too was a special day and I continue to enjoy its privileges regularly.  One of my goals this year is to complete the instrument written exam.  I am not yet decided whether I will go on to get the instrument rating.  There are a lot of factors, not just in getting the rating, but in maintaining currency and proficiency.  We shall see, but I know that studying for and passing the written exam will make me a better pilot.
  • The third rating I received was the Unmanned Aerial Systems Remote Pilot airman’s certificate.  I did this as part of my personal growth plan in flying.  Since I retired from the FAA, I realized that being out of the day to day learning environment at work, I needed to be more intentional about staying up-to-date and fresh in my knowledge review.  I no longer had the benefit of daily osmosis interacting with other aviators.  The UAS qualification came up as an on-line course, so I thought, why not?
The Drone Operator Course
I do not own a drone, although my husband got a small one as a gift for Christmas.  Operating the size drone he received does not require an airmen’s certificate, however, as a pilot I have been nervous that even these small drones are in the hands of the unaware and uninformed of how to responsibly interact with all things that fly.  Aside from the personal growth aspect, I took the course so I would have an inside view of what the non-pilot drone operator was required to know.


As a pilot and former air traffic controller with prior knowledge of airspace stuff, the course was not difficult.  It did bolster my confidence in the direction the regulatory aspect was headed.  At least those who operate drones weighing more than 55 lbs must register.  A Remote Pilot licence is not required for hobby or recreational use for smaller drones, but not a bad idea for anyone operating a drone.
Airspace Sharing
I am not a big government person, yet when it comes to our national airspace asset, the Federal government is the correct location for its stewardship.  We do not think of airspace as as a national asset, and prior to folks taking flight it was an untapped one.  Once Wilbur and Orville and those who followed gave us wings, airspace became a treasure for all kinds of uses.
But who owns the airspace?  Most would answer the government, but in the United States this is not the case.  It it is in most of the rest of the world, but in the USA, the government is charged with stewardship of our nations airspace on behalf of its citizens.
Why the Federal Government?
  • first, because national defense falls under the Office of the President and the airspace is necessary for use by the military.  Although well integrated into our federalized airsapce system, this is fundamental.  Most countries stop there making national airspace a military asset only with specific use allowed by other aviation interests.
  • Second, to maintain safety oversight through licencing standards and rule making.  With commercial interests such as:
    • airlines,
    • cargo,
    • business aviation
    • space travel
along with private private and recreational use there must be standards of safety set and maintained.  This too is part of national defense because as people we can become our own worst enemy.   Someone must help us play well together!
Add to that folks who want to build towers, put up windmills and other tall structures into that same airspace, there must be someone to sort it all out to the benefit of all, especially near airports small and large.
Then there is the whole communication frequency allocation area that also uses our airspace via radio, broadcast media, cell phones, and all things wireless.  Emergency applications of these assets are taken for granted as part of local, state and federal protections.
Drones And Red Flags
When the drone thing hit the masses, as a former air traffic type, pilot and one who enjoysdrones privacy and security, multiple red flags popped up as folks talked about drones delivering my packages and such.  The airspace above the lateral limits of my property and up to 500′ above ground level is mine.  I am fussy about folks wandering onto or into my property without permission.
However, innovation always precedes regulation, as it should.  I mean airplanes were flying long before the United States Civil Aviation (pre-FAA) Authority existed.  Military aircraft were flying in our defense and the US Post Office was flying air mail.  However, once they started bumping into each other with disastrous loss of life, the authorities stepped in.
Innovation and taking risks is a thing Americans are pretty good at.   It lies in the DNA of liberty our country was founded upon.  It’s just how we think,  thus it follows that our airspace regulatory system’s development lags behind innovation.
It is a fine line to walk to allow freedom of innovation while endeavoring to mitigate risk.  You generally do not know the line where regulation is necessary until something goes wrong.  Personally, in spite of the mishaps, some dire, I think we do a fair job of discerning that line or at least defining it after the fact.
Aispace Use
Yet, our airspace system is quite adaptable.  It has, with various levels of ease, incorporated innovations such as:
into our National Airspace System.  The integration of all the levels of UASs will no doubt do the same – eventually.  In the meantime, all who directly or indirectly benefit from the asset of our common airspace must learn to share by following the rules so that we know who all is using our part of the sandbox!
What is your view on the subject of Drones?  Please comment below.  

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