Drone Tech Gets Creepy

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If you don't have a holy &^% moment when watching this this video, you don't have a pulse. At every turn, it seems, the creepiness factor of advances in drone technology seems to be accelerating. This was one of two developments that surfaced last week that should give anyone second thoughts. The other is the sudden intense interest in drone technology by law enforcement agencies. Taken together, these developments represent both positive potential and a scary turn for the worse.

Consider the autonomous drone formation flight. Those are battery powered quad rotors, so they don't have much range or endurance. The video depicts what is obviously a lab trick, but in the modern world, developments move from the lab to the field much faster than they used to. So it's not hard to imagine those quad rotors or similar technology improved for greater range and made smaller and cheaper. Or, conversely, scaled up to, say, two or three feet and fitted with either bigger batteries or a thermodynamic engine for greater range. Now imagine a weaponized swarm of a couple of hundred of these things coming at you like so many malevolent bees. It's creepy. If I were in the Pentagon drone corps and saw this video, I'd be up at night feverishly thinking about countermeasures.

The potential on the civil side is both obvious and just as worrisome if abused. That law enforcement agencies want drones is understandable. They can do what manned helicopters can for a fraction of the cost. In principle, a drone patrolling on routine surveillance is no different than a manned aircraft doing the same. But the expense of manned aircraft puts a natural brake on how much surveillance can be done. It forces the sheriff to limit targets to serious crime or safety issue.

Presumably, with the ability to buy more and ever cheaper, not to mention more capable, drones, law enforcement could easily drift toward routine surveillance of things they don't need to be watching. It's a clear threat to 4th Amendment protections. The nano drones are even more threatening. Imagine one of these little stinkers hovering outside your apartment window without you being aware of it. You can bet this will get a court test sooner rather than later. The Supreme Court has already ruled on the use of GPS trackers for investigatory surveillance, reasoning—correctly, I think—that a search warrant is required for the placement of a tracking device on a vehicle.

We're fortunate in this country to have such protections. But for other parts of the world, drone technology strikes me as the perfect technological tool to keep a restraining thumb on a restless populace. The Stasi would have loved it.

Comments (125)

I don't expect these loud, whining dronebots to do anything undetected. I wouldn't worry about them hovering nearby without your knowing about it. Secondly, the FAA currently requires that the operator (pilot) of any UAV or UAV swarm have a FAA license and medical appropriate to the mission, as well as the necessary ground observers to provide an effective see-and-be-seen capability throughout the flight path. These requirements eliminate any cost advantage over a real aircraft.

Other parts of the world don't have these statutory impediments, but as fast as our own freedoms are eroding under the ongoing explosion of bureaucratic fiat, I am not at all sanguine about the future of our freedom as pilots, anyway. The real creepiness these days is the Leviathan in Washington.

Posted by: S. Lanchester | February 13, 2012 3:20 AM    Report this comment

On a different aspect of the UAV issue, it is obvious to me that the ability to maintain separation among a swarm of dronebots amounts to a complete solution of the automated airspace problem.

For too many years, the FAA has funded $$$$ studies to figure out how to assure aircraft separation in the NextGen airspace system, what with their direct routings and difficult approaches with aircraft of varying capabilities.

Now, here we have a handful of students writing the software to keep any number of aircraft separated in extremely close proximity. It ain't all that hard, FAA. Quit wasting our time and money and just do it.

Posted by: S. Lanchester | February 13, 2012 3:34 AM    Report this comment

I have been reminded of the quote “The only constant is change”.

In less than one hundred years we have seen technology change our lives with the changes happening faster and faster.
On the political front the technological changes have outstripped the way we are controlled, leaving everyone bewildered. The authorities are responding the best they can but find themselves being left behind so they would latch onto something like these drones to assist them. Unfortunately the same technology can be used against the authorities and there will be a constant battle to keep control of the drones. Remember some UAV’s have already been stolen whilst in flight over enemy territories by the enemy and then the craft are used against our side.
On the technological front I agree with S. Lanchester we are seeing how software will eventually control our movement.
Sixty years ago as an electronic development engineer we used to dream of the things that we take for granted today (iPhone’s, laptops, high speed communications, cells phones, you name them and we dreamed them). Now we have got them we are scared of them Why? Because we (males specifically) hate change.

Well we got it so live with it ;-)

Posted by: Bruce Savage | February 13, 2012 4:42 AM    Report this comment

You say, "We're fortunate in this country to have such protections." Are you sure you do have them? They have been erodin at such a pace of late that I'd be far from certain.

Posted by: Bruno Ogorelec | February 13, 2012 5:15 AM    Report this comment

These drones are currently just research toys. But it they can be turned into useful UAVs, capable of carrying a payload and staying up for hours rather than minutes, then I'd expect two things to happen. (1) Serious work and money will be put into making them quiet, so they'll be able to operate much more stealthily. (2) When (not if) the software really enables safe, reliable conflict avoidance, the secret state will find a way to bypass FAA controls.

Posted by: John Stanning | February 13, 2012 5:39 AM    Report this comment

Yes indeed S.Lanchester ! Flow control would be a walk in the park. I imagine a swarm of airliners, and if there ever is a conflict looming, the two aircraft will calculate the most economical solution and split the difference on some settlement account. Perhaps Google ought to come to the rescue. Pilots may not like it. Accountants and shareholders will love it, passengers will too soon enough.

Posted by: Peter De Ceulaer | February 13, 2012 5:45 AM    Report this comment

"I wouldn't worry about them hovering nearby without your knowing about it. "

You're far more trusting than I am. Within a few years, you will be reading how these devices can hover and move without detection in urban environments. IARPA already has the proposal in place.


As for the 4th Amendment, yeah, it's still there. (For now.) See the aforementioned SCOTUS GPS case. But you're right; the danger of erosion is ever present.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | February 13, 2012 5:49 AM    Report this comment

Paul, As a retired Airline Pilot, I can tell you it's only a matter of time (maybe in our lifetime) that the right seat of a commercial jet will be vacant, replaced with automation like the Flight Engineer before them. Just like the railroads in the diesel era, union and customer pressure will give way to cost effiencies and the "carbon based units" will be replaced. The "Airbus" line of thinking ("don't touch the airplane, it will fly itself") will prevail, and airlines around the world will rejoice that they have push button airplanes that anyone can fly. It's coming faster than we think, the fighter pilot is already redundent vs the drone. The last manned fighter is on the drawing board! It is truely scary and amazing all at the same time.

Posted by: Jack Vansworth | February 13, 2012 5:55 AM    Report this comment

For S Lanchester and other interested parties: the latest UAVs don't even HAVE operators/pilots. They're completely autonomous, from the moment that they're released ("cleared for takeoff?") to the moment that they're recovered ("taxi to the gate?"). Between duplex ADS-B and LIDAR, they have remarkable ability to avoid collision hazards. Toss in real-time WX updates, and you've eliminated the need for aircrew. The size of the vehicle is immaterial. From bumblebees to Boeings, the technology is the same. And just maybe there will be a bright side to enabling non-pilots to fly from point A to point B, just by selecting a destination. I always hear people talking about "democratizing the skies." Be careful what you ask for. Here it comes.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | February 13, 2012 6:16 AM    Report this comment

Drones coming at us like aroused yellow jackets? You have stated one of the most important reason for there to be a second amendment in our constitution. One blast from a 12 gage shotgun, or a well-aimed .223 (or, larger) rifle bullet, will blow away one of those pesky mini-drones. If using a rifle (or for that matter a Laser), be careful though where your bullet goes if you miss the target.

Posted by: Alex Kovnat | February 13, 2012 7:04 AM    Report this comment

anotehr try youtube.com/watch?v=4l0xavWi7kU

Posted by: ROBERT ZIEGLER | February 13, 2012 7:08 AM    Report this comment

Sounds like there is a developing market for for giant fly swatters.

Posted by: David Ellis | February 13, 2012 7:42 AM    Report this comment

Watching these 16 small autonomous drones acting in unison does make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
And if 16 drones in a lab creeps you out, imagine 30,000 autonomous drones from sea to shining sea. Brought to you from FAA re-authorization bill HR 658.

Posted by: Andre Abreu | February 13, 2012 7:54 AM    Report this comment

Recorded passenger announcement in the future: "Welcome to Automatic Airlines, completely operated without human hands. As soon as you take your seats, the airplane will depart. Have no fear; nothing can go wrong, can go wrong, can go wrong, can go wrong, can go wrong...."

Posted by: Cary Alburn | February 13, 2012 8:17 AM    Report this comment

"It's a clear threat to 4th Amendment protections."

And TSA's gate-rape being perpetrated at airports across America today isn't?

Posted by: Jack Norman | February 13, 2012 10:01 AM    Report this comment

Autonomous 'drone' technology is an interesting, and expected development. If combined with micro UAS craft the implications are very interesting and troubling. For example, could DNA markers from scent be used to program a swarm to track (and perhaps attack) a specific individual? How about a group of persons? With both pattern recognition (ie 'sight'), aural recognition (ie 'voice), and chemical recognition(ie scent)it's easy to foresee a world where individual targets or target groups could be picked out of a crowd or ferreted out of highly chamoflaged positions. Individual elements of a swarm would certainly be less expensive to produce than even the least expensive mobile weapons systems. If simi- or completely autonomous the possibilities are enormous. Is anyone on thread familiar with Carl Sagan's science fiction? Does "good life" and "bad life" ring a bell?

Posted by: John Townsley | February 13, 2012 11:34 AM    Report this comment

"And TSA's gate-rape being perpetrated at airports across America today isn't?"

Can't recall anyone mentioning TSA searches, above. Read up on administrative search doctrine, do your due diligence and file a court case. Or send ACLU a contribution and have them do it.

Far as I know, SCOTUS has not taken a 4th Amendment complain on TSA searches. Not sure if any lower courts have, either. They did decide the GPS case a few months ago, albeit very narrowly.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | February 13, 2012 12:05 PM    Report this comment

Paul, you are right that quieter UAVs are happening. I was making a limited comment about the types with multiple, open propellers.

Granted, a flapping-wing UAV can be as quiet as a bird, and micro-mini UAVs needn't be any louder than a fly. On the other hand, I could mention the remaining technical hurdles and limited utility of such devices (including the fact that they aren't much use in even moderate winds); but, yes, DARPA is working at solving such things.

So, it is right to be concerned about the proliferation and misuse of UAVs.

Posted by: S. Lanchester | February 13, 2012 12:46 PM    Report this comment

Just to further discuss the 4th Amendment issue, it's worth it to read the court's rulings on the GPS case. Although the decision was unanimous in declaring that GPS tracking constitutes search, the minority opinions raised the issue of reasonable expectation of privacy.

This leads me to believe that the 4th Amendment is alive and well and drones will eventually run smack into it. Now if you lived in Syria or Iran, a different thing.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | February 13, 2012 1:07 PM    Report this comment

As another retired Airline Pilot with more than 32 years experience, I MUST disagree with Jack Vansworth's remark about the right seat of airliners being unoccupied in the future. Sure, the basic technology exists to operate airliners with NO pilots, but it isn't going to happen. The traveling public would never buy it! Copilots, at least 99% of them, are a tremendous help to any Captain. The F/O is vital in cross-checking computer data entries, flight altitudes, emergency procedures, and I could go on and on, as evidenced by the B-717 incident in this weeks AvWeb newsletter. They cross-check the Captain, just as the Captain cross-checks him or her. It is completely different than "replacing the flight engineer due to automation of aircraft systems." Where are those fortunate enough to OCCUPY the left seat supposed to get their experience, if not in actual cockpits on actual flights? There have been, and will continue to be, Captains who are visibly in great condition becoming incapacitated inflight. Thank God, copilots are here to stay!

Posted by: Gary Grubb | February 13, 2012 2:05 PM    Report this comment

Ah, the brave new world!

This video has triggered dozens of blog postings with floods of angst over swarms of nano-observers burrowing through cracks in your privacy.

Personally, while I don't want someone watching me day and night I'm more concerned by the existing ability of not only government but private employees of all levels to burrow through the vast information trail we all leave scattered throughout cyberspace. And they don't even create buzzing noises to warn us.

Posted by: John Wilson | February 13, 2012 2:57 PM    Report this comment

But for other parts of the world, drone technology strikes me as the perfect technological tool to keep a restraining thumb on a restless populace. -

Or lifting one, as the phone cameras are doing, albeit limited in Syria. Love your usual writing, Paul, but I don't sense the fear that you and others here do that needs to turn to guns for protection from ourselves and sea monsters in Washington. Guess the question for me is really can society keep up in protecting its citizens from any abuse of technological advances or will we become paranoid victims of such wonders. I think we can keep up.

With Google Earth anyone can already see the pot plants and bomb-making supplies in my backyard, along with the tunnel to Mexico I'm digging, so a few drones aren't going to make me lose any sleep.

Posted by: David Miller | February 13, 2012 3:01 PM    Report this comment

Ah hmm. Captains and Co-pilots are safe hmm. Let’s say that for security purposes we are told that the Captain and co-pilot are no longer in the aircraft thus ensuring high jacking’s is no longer posible. In the near future we – world population - will be told that to be able to trade (buy anything including basic foods) sell anything (including being paid by your job) we are to be injected with a chip. This chip is similar to that put in domestic animals (dogs and cats). Without this chip you can be arrested and put in jail without trial (the legislation for this is in the process of being ratified). Therefore to gain entrance to an aircraft you have to have this chip and your identity is verified and there is no reason to have a pilot or co-pilot doing nothing in the front of the aircraft.

This is the height of security and is about to happen. The drones are needed to ensure that no one upsets the system. Give yourself ten points if you can determine who is at the centre of all of this (it's not the Government or Government agency).

Posted by: Bruce Savage | February 13, 2012 3:02 PM    Report this comment

So tell us, please, Mr. Savage. WHO is the boogie man (in your view)? Insidious mega-corporations? The Masons? Illuminati? ET? How about a lackadaisical populous only focused on TV "reality" shows, Internet/texting/gaming, bloated spectator sports events and protracted election campaigns of limitless funding, all with little concern for such liberty-sucking codicils as The Patriot Act & its descendents that open the door to any rogue notion of the moment??

Posted by: Wash Phillips | February 13, 2012 3:38 PM    Report this comment

With every new measure there comes a countermeasure. This is good for the economy! Imagine the profit potential for the nano-drone version of insect spray.

Posted by: Robert Mahoney | February 13, 2012 3:55 PM    Report this comment

The terrorists. Ten points to me, right? Though the real answer to me is what Wash Phillips gave, the populace. If we the people only realized the power we have, not a single thing could stand in our way.

Posted by: David Miller | February 13, 2012 4:23 PM    Report this comment

"...nano-drone version of insect spray."

Har! Love the imagery! Nano-bot Flit!

Posted by: John Wilson | February 13, 2012 4:55 PM    Report this comment

Leave it to the gun nuts to think they will be able to defend themselves from these silent, prying swarms.

Posted by: ROBERT M SHERIDAN | February 13, 2012 5:57 PM    Report this comment

The step from lab to reality is a long one. Merseyside police (who look after Liverpool in England) splashed out £13,000 four years ago on a model with thermal imaging camera and video links. In four years it "helped" catch one car thief, before crashing into the sea on a training mission because the battery was flat.
"...during its use officers recognised certain technical and operational issues, including staff training costs and the inability to use it in all weather conditions," is the quote from the police explaining they will not be replacing it.
Full, very funny story at w.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2055650/Lost-sea-Farce-13k-police-drone-vanished-crashing-Mersey.html#ixzz1mLkigu00.

Posted by: Brian McCulloch | February 14, 2012 4:16 AM    Report this comment

Good try Mr Miller. But who is funding the terrorists?
Mr Walsh a good try but nowhere near. Any Information Security Officer of a financial institution will tell you that the measures I mentioned will be a very necessary step in the very near future. One major issue all financial institutions have is accurate and proper identification of people. Finger prints and DNA take too long to process; voice recognition is not very accurate and can be easily tricked. Remember the world has over seven billion people on it and a definitive way is needed to ensure proper identification of all the people. The chip insertion of Dog’s and Cat’s has proved the worth of this device and has been refined over the years of testing. The advantages far outweigh the negatives.

Businesses (Small to Medium Enterprises) on the other hand do not have the resources that banks have to establish the same level of identification. As we become more and more reliant on the internet for all our business and transactions there is a desperate need to ensure accurate and proper identification. This has caused a pressure that is growing and at some near point banks will be forced to put into operation their identification process. The banks will not be seen as the cause of this happening as it will be sold to you for your personal and financial security.

So if you had said business give yourself 10 points and a marie biscuit.

Sorry Paul I seem to have once again hi-jacked your column please do forgive me.

Posted by: Bruce Savage | February 14, 2012 5:04 AM    Report this comment

"Paul, but I don't sense the fear that you and others here do that needs to turn to guns for protection..."

I didn't say anything about resorting to guns for protection, although I haven't the slightest problem if others see it that way. My point is the need to maintain vigilance with regard to how potentially invasive technologies can be abused.

While some may believe the 4th Amendment doesn't exist anymore, I am not one of them. I trust the populace to challenge egregious abuses and the courts to adjudicate them.
Although I've never been fitted for a tin-foil hat, I suppose the court of last resort is a shotgun.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | February 14, 2012 6:06 AM    Report this comment

Mr. Savage. What you are talking about is literally biblical. People will never go for implanting something like an RFID chip. But you can let your imagination run wild with drones equipped with RFID readers and a populations that's been tagged. Tin hat may become a fashionable accessory soon.

Posted by: Andre Abreu | February 14, 2012 6:52 AM    Report this comment

Thanks Andre, back in the 1980's financial institution were afraid of the 666 issue that's why it was never put forward and kept very quiet. Even today it will not be the financial institutions that will call for this to happen but business, at the suggestion of the banks, so they can have protection from the perceived criminal elements on the internet. The technology is already available and ready to be rolled out. I asked my local Doctor if he has been told about the chips for people and he told me he has heard about it.

If you think people will not accept this then think again just look at what is happening at the present moment at airport and the way we are being searched. Everyone complains but no one is doing anything about it.

Got to go and do some more flying while I can all this is too depressing and I need to blow my mind clear.

Posted by: Bruce Savage | February 14, 2012 7:56 AM    Report this comment

Andre: Think that people won't go for RFID implants? Not long ago that the same was said for fingerprints and DNA samples. What happened? Parental paranoia, enabled by ubiquitous technology. Parents are having their kids printed and swabbed in droves – and why? To provide "enhanced investigative capabilities" in the high-likelihood event that their offspring get child napped. So how are universal implants are going to get "sold" to a supple public? As vital medical-emergency identification devices. This is an example of how "the possible" becomes "the necessary." That, plus reassuring the victims (er, citizens) that "someone else" is going to pay for all of this "vital protection."

Earlier in the thread, Gary Grubbs asserted an enduring need for right-seat humans, and the absolute irreplaceability of left-seaters – which completely ignores the entire point of A-UAVs. Yes, pilots are handy to have - in a cockpit that's designed to be run by humans. The A-UAV paradigm rejects that proposition, so its hardware is designed and built to comply with its humanless paradigm. No cockpit = no humans.

Who would buy into such heresy? Um... the USAF, among others. But we’re surrounded by precedents: elevators that lack dedicated human operators; ATMs that largely have replaced bank teller lines; “smart house” technology, etc.

Automated airliners? Oh yeah – they’re coming, all right. And autonomous Cirruses and Cessnas, too.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | February 14, 2012 9:15 AM    Report this comment

Automatic airplanes. There is not much glamor there.
Sounds about as fun as riding in an elevator.
Sorta like invetro fertilization takes the fun out of making babies. But that's what we in the industry call progress.

Posted by: Andre Abreu | February 14, 2012 11:52 AM    Report this comment

I was sloppy, Paul, with my intent to convey surprise at some reactions to potential drone technology misuse and lumped everyone together. Since we're constantly on guard for viruses with computers, 2nd A. gun abuse, the mentioned GPS court case and countless other things that haplessly have me jaded, to think this will inevitably happen also to any drone use by civilian or government entities is par for me. Glad I'm not a scheduler for the courts.

Bruce, I'm not at all convinced about the chip for humans. That's definitely a Fourth A. issue likely needing warrants. Your examples are voluntary ones and would never be accepted as a mandate, IMO. But the eye scan, however they do that, is unique, quick and non-invasive like a photo, so maybe an opening there. Now, where is my lanyard with my ID to get into the building, I know I set it over here...

Posted by: David Miller | February 14, 2012 12:10 PM    Report this comment

Hi Dave glade to see you again. Yes the laser eye scan was a candidate for a while until someone was found with damaged retinas due to extended laser scanning from testing. The retina is continually changing as well so it does present a problem as does the processing time which is also very long and not suitable to quick EFT (Electronic Funds Transfers). We were told to imagine a customer in a supermarket with a box of ice-cream trying to make a payment for it. The customers {and retailers} do not want to be in the line for too long because the ice-cream is melting. So how do we help both parties to speed up the process. I can assure you that much brain storming has been done on this subject.
Considering the Fourth - it seems about to disappear into the annuls of time to be forever forgotten. I personally hope it will not happen but the way thing are going at the moment there is every indication it will happening. That is unless by some miracle everyone wakes up and does something about it. The question is what can be done?

Oh dear I see I'm a killjoy again. {{Smile you'er on candid camera and they are all around}}

Posted by: Bruce Savage | February 14, 2012 1:27 PM    Report this comment

Regarding the formation flying of the drones. It is very simple to maintain separation when in flight. Each drone has the same radio frequency, and a single controller. When controls are activated, the drone responds accordingly. When the drones are launched simultaneously, with spacing established prior to launch, they will all respond the same way as they fly. The only variations will occur over time as one propulsion system may be operating at a greater/lesser speed which might cause a loss of lift or separation. It's very simple.

Posted by: Gary Readio | February 15, 2012 8:25 AM    Report this comment

The pioneer aviator, Alberto Santos-Dumont, killed himself – it is said – because he was
depressed about the use of airships and airplanes to bomb people on the ground. Other inventors saw the military as a source of funding and from the beginning aviation has always been handmaiden to the military. It’s where the money is. And now we can add the bloated budgets of Homeland Security to the mix. It should come as no surprise that drones, which I remember as a means to film African wildlife, are now being employed by the police and military for more lethal purposes. Some of us place high value on great cities filled with great museums but at the same time know there are people who quite willingly would bomb them into oblivion. The problem, too, is how to keep the military (and police and freelancers) from destroying civilized societies when for so many of us the fine line that separates defense from destruction is hard to see and even harder to legislate. But it is not a bad idea to remind ourselves what it is we’re trying to protect and whether the means justify the end. We have no choice but to take things one step at a time. What is more difficult is to see where that path is taking us.

Posted by: Robert Murray | February 15, 2012 8:57 AM    Report this comment

Drones (cruise missles) have been flying in formation for a couple decades. This really isn't new....
The Air Force's push toward pilotless airplanes are the leading edge of technology that will evolve into pilotless airliners. We're just around the corner from cars that drive themselves, airplanes are next. If it comes as a surprise think back 5 decades to autopilots that landed without a pilots intervention in 0/0 and taxiied to the gate... it's evolution. The public will be in an accepting mood when it happens because it isn't won't happening overnight, but it's happening.

Posted by: RONALD MOORE | February 15, 2012 9:07 AM    Report this comment

Paul, I felt exactly as you did when I watched this creepy, buzzing swarm hovering about with efficiency and no feeling. "Yes, we will hang your laundry on the clothesline." Wow! look at how our clever technology has advanced! :-D "Yes, we will kill that person." Oh my... Look how our clever technology has advanced. :-(

Posted by: Steve Brady | February 15, 2012 11:20 AM    Report this comment

The point has been made above that rogue nations don't have the constitutional protections we do. So take that idea another step. Once the bad guys develop this technology against us, won't we have to do likewise? So where are those constitutional protections now?

And kudos to Robert Murray's comments above.

Posted by: Darryl Phillips | February 15, 2012 1:30 PM    Report this comment

I guess I am the only one here that felt this is good progress rather than bad intrusion into our privacy. I like the new technology and hope it is put to good use.

About the intrusions - if the cute little drones get too close they will be just as vulnerable to shotgun blasts as similar sized animals. If they are far enough away to be out of shotgun range then they probably won't see anything more than a casual observer can see today. Privacy can be had with something as low tech as curtains.

I'm more concerned about running into a swarm of these toys while flying my plane. I understand Mr. Obama has proposed solutions to this problem in his latest political campaign document . . . oops, I meant to say federal budget. We'll see if the avoidance goal is reached.

We are certainly in for interesting times.

Posted by: PAUL MULWITZ | February 16, 2012 5:30 AM    Report this comment

What's even more creepy is the prospect of both the right and left seats becoming empty, simply because their occupants won't be able to cope with the avalanche of information required to make decisions. Can you imagine a phalanx of Ma Bell operators at switchboards trying to cope with cell phone and Internet connections? That's all automated now, with broad and detached oversight by human techies. When the system does fail, it is a serious inconvenience for a while, but no one dies. I wonder if the same can be said of automated skies.

Posted by: Bob Hawbaker | February 16, 2012 6:14 AM    Report this comment

I guess pilots are just as uncomfortable with computer technology as passengers are riding in planes they can't fly.

That said, I spent several decades in nearly all aspects of computer technology. I am very comfortable with computers, but I am not at all comfortable with the notion of flying passengers in pilotless aircraft. I don't think I will live long enough to see that day and I doubt anyone alive today will. Computers and particularly computer software just isn't reliable enough for such precious cargo.

I also don't expect to see single pilot airliners. There is too much chance one pilot will drop dead in the middle of a flight (not withstanding the silly FAA medical certificate). I expect to see two pilot operations in all airliners and most IFR charters for the foreseeable future.

Posted by: PAUL MULWITZ | February 16, 2012 6:27 AM    Report this comment

Don't worry , the use of these things will expand exponentially if you give Local Authorities powers, they will use them for whatever reason they can get away with, in the UK Local Authorities were using powers assigned to them under the Prevention of Terrorism Act to spy on people who were supposedly not recycling their waste correctly !, In a few years I can see these Drones being used for all kinds of Surveillance , upto and including Assassination. Once you open Pandoras Box its too late.

Posted by: MICHAEL BROGAN | February 16, 2012 6:44 AM    Report this comment

Having worked at Airbus for a while I was involved with the aircraft computers. They are very robust and take a lot to damage them. A couple of years ago Airbus introduced ground engineers to evaluate snags while the aircraft is flying and make the necessary corrections without the pilots knowledge. The aircraft computers already fly the aircraft from take off to landing the only time the pilot is really needed is to taxi the plane from the gate to the runway and back again.It is only a matter to time before that function is taken away from the pilots and the aircraft will simply follow a wire in the taxi way.The question is why are there two resources in the aircraft that are an overhead where removing them will save costs. Unfortunately today's airline industry is all about cost cutting. It is time we got rid of the accountants that run business thinking they can save lots of money only to be given to the shareholders.

PS The engineers were asked by airline companies to evaluate reducing the 45 min to 5 min reserve so that the fuel weight could be reduced thereby cutting costs. Don't kid yourself if the airline companies could take the pilots and co-pilots out of the cockpit they would.

Posted by: Bruce Savage | February 16, 2012 6:48 AM    Report this comment

Getting back to Capt. Grubb's post of 13 Feb....please don't confuse me with someone who wants to see the Co-Pilot go away! I did not want to see Flight Engineers or the 3rd engine go way, but they did. Safety always seems to be compromised by economics. As fighter pilots the world over are lamenting, it makes no sense to send a pilot into harms way when it can be done better with a drone. Since the Raptor can shoot down at least 5 F-15's before they even know he is in the neighborhood, close air combat seems to be a thing of the past. I don't like it but it's coming. Since you and I have probably shot our last real time Cat IIIb approach (two in over 20,000.0 hrs of airline flying), and since I'm an ex helo guy.....I just think the technology is amazing. Cheers!

Posted by: Jack Vansworth | February 16, 2012 7:00 AM    Report this comment

ADS-B out on 978 MHz (UAT) should be required of any UAV or UAS that is airborne. Additionally, their operation in any area should require a new type of warning area (like an MOA) with the boundaries broadcast by ADS-B ground radios and receivable by an ADS-B in UAT.

Posted by: Scott Krueger | February 16, 2012 7:01 AM    Report this comment

For Paul Mulwitz and interested others: If you re-read what you wrote "I also don't expect to see single pilot airliners. There is too much chance one pilot will drop dead in the middle of a flight..." you'll see that your reasoning simply doesn't apply with regard to autonomous vehicles. When there's no pilot to drop dead, you don't need a second pilot to take his/her place. Quadruple-redundant systems (a la Gulfstream) would have the equivalent functionality of four on-board human pilots. Except that none of the systems would require food, rest periods, etc. None would be fatigued while beginning an approach to minimums after a 12-hour flight.

I, too, have spent several decades designing computer hardware and software, including control systems that were responsible for human life safety. Computers are not perfect. But neither are humans. Human beings have not been improved during the last 30 years, but the skies are far safer than they were before modern technology asserted itself. Why will they let an airliner land itself in 0-0 conditions, but not allow a human to attempt the same feat? Even if there are 200 qualified pilots aboard?

Humans now can design machines that reliably can do what no human can. I consider that to be an achievement, rather than a threat. There are many things that computers cannot yet do. But where automation can provide an Equivalent Level of Safety, some human’s unique talents are not germane to the objective of flying safely.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | February 16, 2012 7:16 AM    Report this comment


Your points are well taken. Still, I will never ride in a plane piloted by only a computer and I suspect very few other people would be willing to do that. Heck, I don't even have an autopilot in my plane.

I understand there are real problems with human pilots. You only have to look at the recent accidents with Colgan and Air France to see pilots who simply forgot how to fly without the automation and killed themselves and their passengers. On the other hand, in both cases the automation failed before the pilots had a chance to fail. Also, lessons have been learned from these accidents and pilot check rides are getting a lot more realistic. They even have to fly the planes!

I know there are lots of people who trust computers more than people. I feel this is a big mistake. Many such dreamers are NASA idiots who predict what will happen 50 years later after they are all dead. They are comfortable predicting smart aircraft transporting happy people without the need to learn to fly. For my money this is simply hogwash.

Just because an autonomous aircraft can fly itself doesn't mean it can fly passengers. When such an aircraft crashes it is no big deal, but if there were 200 passengers on board the noise from the general public would never end.

Posted by: PAUL MULWITZ | February 16, 2012 7:31 AM    Report this comment

I would suggest that everyone write their congressman demanding that your local law enforcement agency not have the capability to use this technology to spy on each of you just because they think you maybe doing something wrong. We can each hang together OR each hang alone ! Their coming for you....who will be next ?

Posted by: David Jaeb | February 16, 2012 7:36 AM    Report this comment

For Paul, you will probably not thave to worry about boarding a pilotless airliner, but as Mr. Yarsley points out, your children will. Virtual vision and Cat III landings used to be the things we dreamed about, now they are mainstream. Not a happy outlook for a "Stick and Rudder" guy like me......or you!

Posted by: Jack Vansworth | February 16, 2012 7:43 AM    Report this comment

....since I'm quacking on here, I am very interested in what Mr. Yarsley has to say having been in the employee of Airbus. As an ex-pat Capt. for several years in Russia and Asia, and seeing all the brand new "Heavy Metal" parked in that area of the world waiting pilots to fly it, I can tell you that if Airbus ......or Boeing could come up with a push button airplane right now, thousands of Bangli's, Saudi's, and Indonesians would be flying on them as we speak. Boeing tried for the "Airbus" automation many years ago...only to be "shot down" by ALPA with some of the same arguments listed above. At the time I agreed with ALPA that the pilots were necessary to any flight (good grief, who would have thought otherwise!)...now I wonder if the pilots in several accidents over the last few years would have been better off to slide thier seats back and let the airplane correct itself via the computer....second guessing but food for thought.

Posted by: Jack Vansworth | February 16, 2012 8:06 AM    Report this comment

The only reason these drones can fly in formation as shown in the video is that they are orchestrated by a computer system that uses a large number of video cameras that track each drone and sends them commands telling them what to do. I'm not too worried by the technology at this stage of the game.

Posted by: Chip Fleming | February 16, 2012 8:15 AM    Report this comment

You already ride on airliners that fly themselves from gate to gate. You will soon buy cars that drive themselves, that will make the public comfortable with pilotless airplanes. Pilotless airplanes are the norm in the Air Force, they're just not carrying pax yet. (They don't use cameras to fly in formation.)
I suspect Pilotless airliners will operate in your lifetime... (unless you're an octagenarian), it's right around the corner. The technology has been flying for decades.

Posted by: RONALD MOORE | February 16, 2012 8:29 AM    Report this comment

Question: when boarding the aircraft in today’s busy terminals do we really see the pilot and co-pilot? In days past as you walked to the aircraft you were able to look up and see who was in the cockpit. Sometimes the Captain would be at the door welcoming passengers on the plane. What with security being what it is, these happenings are long gone so apart from “This is your captain XXXXX speaking” over the intercom what else do they do to make themselves visible? But people will happily board the plane sit down and put their lives into the hands of whatever is up there flying the plane. Does anyone [read passengers]demand to see the captain and his credentials {Pilots licence of type for the aircraft being flown}? Wonder what would happen if you did?

Sorry everyone I do love to fly and do not agree with total computerisation of the cockpit because as someone has already said humans do have the ability to be innovative especially in emergencies. But we live in a capitalist world where costs and cost reduction is everything so that shareholders can be paid more.

Posted by: Bruce Savage | February 16, 2012 10:00 AM    Report this comment

I don't know what planet your readers live on, but here on Earth in the USA there is currently NO requirement for UAS vehicles to either see or by seen by any other aircraft. In fact, the obligation is on manned aircraft to see and avoid UAS vehicles. That is what a controller at ABQ Center told me when I was going into LRU (Las Cruces, where drones use a civilian airport while their "pilots" are in a trailer 20 miles away at White Sands). What is the basis for optimism that GA will be able to safely coexist with UAS vehicles?

Posted by: STERLING GROGAN | February 16, 2012 10:17 AM    Report this comment

Sorry Bruce, Shareholders in airlines don't get paid much. It has to be the most unprofitable business ever. There are some exceptional airlines, e.g. Southwest, that actually make profits, but for the most part airlines always lose money.

Pilots may be expensive, but they are a small part of the whole flight cost. The losses from one lost airliner would easily pay for the pilot costs for the whole fleet for a long time. Also, plenty of people would move to airlines with human pilots - even if they are backups for the automation - rather than fly on automation operated ones.

Consider how much trouble we are having eliminating the worthless 3rd class medical certificate. Can you imagine what it would take for the FAA to allow pilotless airliners? Perhaps 2 full generations after these are in service in Indonesia and China we might see the first one in the FAA zone.

Posted by: PAUL MULWITZ | February 16, 2012 10:25 AM    Report this comment

I don't know about elsewhere, but on U.S. domestic flights, the cockpit door is usually open during boarding and either the left or right seat is occupied. Sometimes both.

Having said that, I don't know if I'd fly on a drone airliner or not. Probably I would. As for the flying public in general, I have no idea what acceptance would be like. Not much research on it, from what I can tell.

We already have trains without operators in some subway systems. I think people might want to see automated cars first to get comfortable with the technology and the smart highway is in the distance.

I agree it's inevitable. But the timeline? My guess is not 10 years. Maybe 20, but longer wouldn't surprise me.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | February 16, 2012 10:35 AM    Report this comment

Which reminds me of the announcement from the flight deck that said, This aircraft is being completely controlled by computers. There is no pilot on board. We are flying at 35,000. feet and there is nothing to worry about ... nothing to worry about ... nothing to worry about.

Posted by: Robert Murray | February 16, 2012 10:43 AM    Report this comment

Automatic, Pilotless, Autonomous, Remote controlled Airplanes, drones... whatever they end up calling these things... may be a perfect platform for air cargo companies like FedEx.
What would be a good name for these things?

Drone + Plane = Drane

Posted by: Andre Abreu | February 16, 2012 11:37 AM    Report this comment

Wait! You're missing the real threat here...
With an automated system like this, a logical application would be in flying cars. Everyone can zip from Point A to Point B quickly by air and never have to stop reading their newspaper. The real downfall to this is that with millions of automated flying cars in the air, I foresee a ban on general aviation because "We don't want those random, unprogrammed aircraft flying around in our airspace creating hazards for our automated flying cars."

Posted by: BRUCE MCJUNKIN | February 16, 2012 12:27 PM    Report this comment

Although it is sad that the role of the pilot is once again changing, we should not confuse this with the demise of aviation. If anything, the increasing use of automation will spur new innovations such as personal air vehicles. Think of all the new businesses that will spring up if we can automate flying so that an ordinary family can jump in a PAV and fly direct to a vacation spot? The opportunities are frankly incredible and offer the US a chance to once again demonstrate to the world the power of innovation and entrepreneurship.

Posted by: Julian O'Dea | February 16, 2012 2:03 PM    Report this comment

Only a CERTIFIED or CERTIFIABLE IDIOT would fly in a pilotless airliner.

Posted by: David Ellis | February 16, 2012 2:07 PM    Report this comment

I like your thinking Julian but just think about how many people will just hop on a PVA and fly into what ever country they like. A dream of many aviators over the years but what a major headache for the authorities especially those that take great pleasure in searching pax's, they'd be out of a job and will have to join the jobless. Wow wouldn't that be fun lets go to Mexico today for the weekend. Just what would immigration do and for that matter the Drug enforcement agencies. A few years from now when the world is under one government it could be a possibility.

David I agree with you but if you needed to get somewhere (like trying to get home) and found out that all the planes you had to catch were pilotless how would you get home?

Oh for the day we can say "Beam me up Scotty" ;-) have a great day

Posted by: Bruce Savage | February 17, 2012 5:32 AM    Report this comment

For david Ellis and interested others: The GA accident rate is affected by pilots' lack of training, judgment, recency-of-experience, and by less-than-stellar equipage caused at least in part by financial constraints. One recent trend is for relatively low-time pilots who have purchased near-one-million-dollar HP singles to discover the limits of themselves, if not of their chosen hardware. It doesn’t take years of study of NTSB reports to learn that the biggest risk factor in the GA cockpit today is the pilot. Automation is a viable method of mitigating that risk. And with that risk reduced, GA would become attractive to a well-moneyed population that is many times the size of the entire present GA pilot community.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | February 17, 2012 6:21 AM    Report this comment

>>> Automation is a viable method of mitigating that risk.

Posted by: PAUL MULWITZ | February 17, 2012 6:29 AM    Report this comment

Heard on the news today that Nevada is issuing drivers licenses to robotic cars. Google is developing these cars. I always had a feeling that Google had all the answers. Google air next.

Posted by: Andre Abreu | February 17, 2012 6:50 AM    Report this comment

For Paul Mulwitz and interested others: yes, both people and automation can fail. But automation already is thousands of times more reliable than humans – and it will improve. Automation never fatigues. A pilot's skills can improve with training and experience, but when s/he leaves the system (or falls asleep), that gain is lost. Automation can capture and leverage the collective experience of thousands of pilots over the course of millions of flights. Automation has no interest in concealing cockpit conversations; it can promptly and reliably report its own failures and other experiences.

The automation that we’re familiar with (and that many detractors hold up as a bad example) is automation that’s designed to assist humans in the performance of their assigned manual tasks. The automation that I’m talking about is autonomous. It is not designed to help people do manual tasks – it is designed to account for the non-presence of humans who are tasked with anything. The two types of automation provide no valid comparison.

Kodak brought photography to non-trained, non-licensed people. It pissed off a lot of professional photographers, too. Think of what an autonomous GA transportation system could do. (It’s already pissing off a few pilots.) The good news is it’s unlikely that anyone will be compelled to give up their good old manually-operated airplane.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | February 17, 2012 9:57 AM    Report this comment

Better sounding maybe, to me at least, than Yahoo! or Bing...Yahoo Airlines, Ha!

But as far as the skies being filled with families in PAV's on time constraints, in all weather and wind, with density altitude and fewer airports, like a modern day Jetson's world, well, I'm just glad I'm old enough to have acquired my own memories of flight as I liked it. Not to say there's anything wrong with that new scenario.. :\

Posted by: David Miller | February 17, 2012 9:58 AM    Report this comment

Today's drones are incapable of complying with:

§ 91.113 Right-of-way rules
(b) General. When weather conditions permit, regardless of whether an operation is conducted under instrument flight rules or visual flight rules, vigilance shall be maintained by each person operating an aircraft so as to see and avoid other aircraft.

Therefore they have no place in the NAS outside of Restricted Airspace.

Posted by: Pat Tighe | February 17, 2012 10:05 AM    Report this comment

"There just isn't any other explanation as to why Cirrus has such a horrible safety record."

Whoaaa....let's tap the brakes on that one. Cirrus doesn't have a "horrible" safety record; it has an average safety record and a slightly higher-than-average fatal rate.

It's fairer to say the record is disappointing, given the airplane's safety features.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | February 17, 2012 10:13 AM    Report this comment

Good point Pat but if the "person" is not there does the rules apply. As demonstrated in the video the drones can fly in close formation and when doing the figure of eight there was definitely a right of way rule. Not one we humans would agree to but then we are I suppose being made redundant so there will have to be new rules. Wait a minute who is making all this up I mean who is writing the software it definitely not some machine so these drones still have a human fallibility build into them Whew I thought all was lost then ;-)

Posted by: Bruce Savage | February 17, 2012 10:28 AM    Report this comment

Paul B.

I stand corrected regarding Cirrus accident record. I would have expected a much lower accident and fatality rate given the marketing and inclusion of all sorts of extra "Safety" equipment such as airframe parachutes. Alas, these planes are worse than average rather than better.

Some of the problem probably stems in the high performance designed into these aircraft. I still think the marketing push claiming you can fly one of these planes if only you have enough money to buy one is behind the actual record.

Posted by: PAUL MULWITZ | February 17, 2012 10:45 AM    Report this comment

Thomas Y,

Lately I've been reading a lot of S/F stories by Jack McDevitt that go into detail about automation in far future craft. In his vision of aviation and space travel in a future some 10,000 years from now he has automation doing all the work under supervision of a properly trained and capable pilot. This usually works just fine. The automation provides the details of control with expected precision but the human provides executive decision making and backup for actual control of the machine details when the human decides to do so. Even in this fantasy universe there are still failures of automation and times when the human needs to do the flying.

I know this is fiction, but it is fiction I find believable. I just can't imagine any scenario where the automation is superior in high level judgements to organic humans.

You must remember in your dreaming of superior automation that it was built by humans and includes flaws the human designers and (Union?) factory workers included. I think humans will always be superior when it comes to ultimate responsibility for safety in flight.

(I highly recommend "Firebird" which I just finished by this author which is all about the future of automation along with FTL problems.)

Posted by: PAUL MULWITZ | February 17, 2012 10:54 AM    Report this comment

"would have expected a much lower accident and fatality rate given the marketing and inclusion of all sorts of extra "Safety"

Exactly. That's why I think disappointing in the right description. Other aircraft--the Saratogas and Mooney long bodies, for instance--have worse records than the Cirrus.

The more I study it, the more complex I think it is to explain it.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | February 17, 2012 12:39 PM    Report this comment

For Paul Mulwitz and interested others: Humans' high-level judgment (in the cockpit) is the overwhelming leading cause of aircraft accidents. Humans bust minimums; machines are programmed not to. Humans push fuel to dry-tank conditions; machines can calculate remaining endurance and range – thousands of times per second. Humans love and exhibit great trust of “trend vector” displays that simply tell them visually what some machine already has figured out far better than they apparently can. It would be a lot easier and safer to just let the machine fly the plane. To a great extent, this is what the airlines do now.

One nice thing about control-law software – it can capture the collective knowledge of thousands of experts, and millions of situations. No flight-training regimen can match that. The authors of the software have the benefit of writing and testing it in the calm and safety of a nice warm dry building – instead of inside of a… well, you get it. This is kind of like IBM’s Big Blue beating some Russian master in a series of chess games. Humbling but inevitable. Yet awe-inspiring. It’s been more than 30 years since we routinely began designing planes that are aerodynamically unstable – incapable of being flown by the very best pilots – yet offering superior performance. Software flies those planes, and until recently, a human was in the control loop. For many missions, that human now is irrelevant, and in fact, is considered to be a liability.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | February 17, 2012 1:05 PM    Report this comment


I'm happy for you.

I can remember when I thought I was the only one in the world who could appreciate the neat software features I created. Your excitement over control software is just that kind of thing.

Unfortunately, that doesn't address the question we are discussing here at all. No matter how cute the software is, the computer hardware used to build aircraft control systems is prone to faults. You just can't fix this problem with software. Sooner or later the hardware will fail and you need to have a backup position. When you are carrying precious cargo like people this becomes a life and death matter. All the algorithms in the world can't help you out of this mess.

The same sort of argument applies to your (perfectly correct) argument that people have emotional failings. This is simply unavoidable. It is not justification for taking people out of the responsibility role in aircraft piloting. Rather it is justification for careful selection training and monitoring of human pilots.

I don't think you can come up with an argument that will convince me (or most other people) that it is better to ride in a computer piloted aircraft than one with a human in control. I don't even know why you would want to do that. Do you like machines better than people?

Posted by: PAUL MULWITZ | February 17, 2012 3:09 PM    Report this comment

Paul M Hmmm modern commercial aircraft have a very small flight envelope in the region of a few knots and the computers have to fly the aircraft anyway. There happens to be two very expensive resources riding in the cockpit so methinks the writing is on the wall. I'm not an accountant but I have worked with them and know their thinking. It's only a matter of time and that in the financial circumstance of today may not be too long.

As for hardware there is a difference between the home/business computers and those used in aviation be it military or commercial where there has to be a minimum triple redundancy. I've been designing electronic equipment since the early 1960 and know that when using genuine military spec components there is little chance of their failures. Then put a triple redundancy to that and you have bullet proof equipment.

Finally it's not to convince you to fly in pilotless planes it's a matter of what you can do about it. Like I said earlier do you see the pilot these days as law dictates that the cockpit door has to be closed and locked when taking on passengers. I have a few friends that are commercial airline pilots so don't get me wrong I don't want to see the removal of pilots and co-pilots from cockpits but then I'm not in control of what happens.

Oh dear I've got serious again

Posted by: Bruce Savage | February 17, 2012 4:09 PM    Report this comment


I too designed redundant hardware for years. Mine was in telecommunications rather than flight control, but I suspect the issues and outcomes are the same. There is always a single point where failure is possible.

In cases like the Colgan and Air France accidents the hardware in the computers didn't fail but the control systems still did. I believe in both cases it was ice blocking the pitot tubes that led to the demise of all aboard both planes. It really doesn't matter where the failure occurs. When it does you still need a competent human to take over. In the two cases I cited there apparently wasn't a competent human to do the job. I wonder how many other automation failures were properly handled by competent pilots so the whole incident disappeared except from the memories of the people involved.

One last comment - when building military hardware it is often necessary to make a choice between most safe and highest performance. The military will almost always choose the highest performance since they think that helps keep them safe from enemy attack. They are always aware they might lose the whole aircraft and accept that risk. It is different in civilian systems. When dealing with something like an airliner the focus will always fall on safety over performance. It may be nice to have automation to optimize performance of airliners and other transport planes, but a plane that can't be flown by humans is an accident looking for a place to happen.

Posted by: PAUL MULWITZ | February 17, 2012 4:57 PM    Report this comment

For Paul Mulwitz and interested others: modern airliners (and many business jets) no longer have any mechanical flight controls – boosted or otherwise. They’re all fly-by-wire / fly-by light, servo-powered systems. It doesn’t matter how many humans are in the cockpit – if the electronics ever completely failed, it would be “game over.” Taking humans out of the control loop actually can have benefits for designers. For one thing, it means that a fail-over outcome cannot be abrogated to “hand it to a manual pilot; let him figure it out.” The coders have to “man up.” I’m comfortable with that. In a worst-case scenario, altitude = terrain avoidance; solid-state accelerometer data = pitch, roll, groundspeed, and good (derived) alpha-approximation information. That’s enough to keep the dirty side down until accurate navigation is restored.

On a related subject, based upon my personal experience and the reported experiences of dozens of others with whom I’ve worked, there are two words that you never want to hear in the same sentence: “French” and “software.”

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | February 17, 2012 5:20 PM    Report this comment

I'm left wondering what would have happened to the airliner with all engines destroyed by birds that landed on the Hudson. I can't imagine automation pulling off that miracle with no fatalities.

Posted by: PAUL MULWITZ | February 17, 2012 5:27 PM    Report this comment

Following up on the earlier comment of driverless cars in Nevada: http: + //tinyurl.com/NevadaAutoDrive

Posted by: Rush Strong | February 17, 2012 7:25 PM    Report this comment

Paul M - IIFC, the control system in the Air France system recovered, but the pilot inexplicably continued to haul back on the stick, preventing stall recovery. The humans didn't know what the hell was going on, failed to assimilate the conflicting info being presented, and floundered. A computer probably could have saved the plane.

As for the "Miracle on the Hudson", programming a perfect ditching is fairly trivial (compared, say, to video games). Deciding to choose the river over other options is the only trick - and only requires that bodies of water be included as possible landing spots.

Posted by: Rush Strong | February 17, 2012 7:35 PM    Report this comment

Thomas Y - Kudos on your posts, I think you've got it.

Posted by: Rush Strong | February 17, 2012 7:37 PM    Report this comment

Paul M You are preaching to the converted but the future is not in our hands but in the hands of those faceless accountants. These people have only eyes for cost cutting and nothing else. They believe their whole purpose in life is to save man from himself and the way to do this is to cut costs wherever they can and anyone objecting be dammed. Lets not get into that discussion I spent many years in that nightmare and anyway we will have Paul B blocking us.

Thomas Y seems you have worked in Airbus. Worked there a while and dealing with the French and their engineers was another nightmare I would rather forget.

Paul B I just loved this discussion so than you very very much for starting it. To all those involved thank you for you discussion points. Like I said I really enjoyed it.

Posted by: Bruce Savage | February 18, 2012 1:05 PM    Report this comment

Bruce S - Please don't blame the accountants (I was once a Cost Acct.). Their job is to present management with accurate numbers. If Management opts for short term profit over long term stability, it is the accountants' unfortunate lot to "make it so" whether they agree with it or not.

I certainly don't question your comments about the cost cutters, but let's put the blame where it is deserved: management.

Posted by: Rush Strong | February 18, 2012 1:19 PM    Report this comment

Sorry Rush ever since I worked in the Banking industry my views of Accountants has diminished badly. Accountants become management especially in the banks so its back to what I said. You will be familiar with the saying "I'll make the profit what ever you want it". I would say more but methinks it will be off topic.

Posted by: Bruce Savage | February 18, 2012 1:40 PM    Report this comment

Fair enough; accounting is often a necessary step towards management. I speak for those who do not have such career aspirations.

Posted by: Rush Strong | February 18, 2012 2:24 PM    Report this comment

Rush If Paul B is willing, he can send my email address to you and I'll explain in greater details what happens in the banking industry and why its's in such a mess.

Soon we will find that the world is moving in a different direction from that of today the old financial ways have failed and new ways are going to be found and become the norm. Drones and automation is the future and we have little say in the matter. When we look around us we see things happening that should never have been started but we the population can do little to change that. We are like sheep and will follow anyone who can shout the loudest. It's people like those that follow this blog are considered lateral thinkers and are actually hated by those who think vertically.

Posted by: Bruce Savage | February 19, 2012 5:50 AM    Report this comment


OK it's off topic but at least it isn't offensive.

I don't think the world is changing its financial ways so much as most people don't have a clue how the finances work. Most people think a dollar is a piece of paper with some old guy's picture on the front. That just ain't so any more. Today it is a number stored in a computer somewhere. The notion that there is some piece of metal or other real world representation of a dollar is just quaint fiction. In this world of digital money value is created and destroyed in huge quantities every instant. Contrary to notions from old guys like Ron Paul there is no turning back.

On your other line . . . in the communications industry we used to describe the fatal blow to companies the advent of "Bean Counters" in charge of company management. These folks just don't seem to have the inspiration to get beyond simple profit and loss calculations to the big picture and shared company paradigm. Once the bean counters take hold the end is near.

Posted by: PAUL MULWITZ | February 19, 2012 6:05 AM    Report this comment

The article is about Big Brother... so we can talk about anything Big Brother related that we want.

BTW, I like Ron Paul. He would argue that it's not the "Bean counters" but "Big Brother" that's the root of allot of our problems.

The Federal Reserve prints the "big brother beans" willy nilly... which debases the currency. A weak dollar causes the prices of imported things such of coffee beans and 100LL to go up up and up. Personally, I'd like to see our currency back buy something... Gold is so passe... I would prefer a dollar backed by a couple gallon of AV-Gas.

Posted by: Andre Abreu | February 19, 2012 8:18 AM    Report this comment


If the dollar were backed by AvGas I'm afraid it would be more like a couple of ounces than a couple of gallons.

Posted by: PAUL MULWITZ | February 19, 2012 9:15 AM    Report this comment

OK here goes for those interested. There are two types of people who join the banks. One is the accountant type (Bean Counters) and the other is the management type. Youngsters join the bank and do time as teller once this is completed they are moved into the junior accountants position. Here the accountant types excel and the management type has problems. A while later they are moved into a junior management position usually a small one man branch office. Here the management types excel and usually grow the business whereas the accountant types just make the grade (as Paul M said they just don’t have the inspiration to develop). Then both types are taken into a medium size bank first as accountants and then as managers. Again there is a distinct difference between the two, the manager’s flag as accountants and the accountant’s flag as managers. Accountants will continue to senior management and the manager types will usually leave taking up management positions in other companies. The accountant types now in charge of banks ensure that their customers are run by like types (Bean Counters) before they will lend money. As a Senior Consultant in the Information Security Department reporting to the Board of Directors (Shareholder voted so not that many accountancy types) had the biggest problem from the General Manager (who were all accountant types). cont..

Posted by: Bruce Savage | February 19, 2012 12:44 PM    Report this comment


They could not see the advantage of the Information Security Department as there was no RIO (Return on Investment) until they lost sixty five million pounds through SWIFT. This was a wakeup call and they then realized they had to have an information security department which was separate to Internal Auditors. I was employed to develop Visa Boxes, Stream Cypher devices (hardware / software) and to evaluate new IT devices before they could be installed into the system. The number of times I was blatantly told (even at Board meetings) that I had no idea what Banking was about and should get my nose out of it.
When I left they quickly realized that I was a major danger as I had extensive knowledge of all the banks security and how to counter them so they applied and got a Supreme Court Order (gagging order) to keep me quiet. That was twenty five years ago so the order is now prescribed and I can now freely talk about it but it is such a sore point, being threatened with your life, to have your family threatened to be forced into liquidation, your bosses told to fire you when you have found a job. So to say the fall in the banking industry has made my day is an understatement.

Posted by: Bruce Savage | February 19, 2012 12:45 PM    Report this comment

Sign this petition to stop UAV operations within the NAS:

Posted by: Pat Tighe | February 19, 2012 12:57 PM    Report this comment


Posted by: Pat Tighe | February 19, 2012 12:59 PM    Report this comment

Pat and others...rather than post these superlong URLs, might I suggest using snip URL? The above then becomes:


Easier to catch flies with honey and fewer mistakes.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | February 19, 2012 1:10 PM    Report this comment

Without even looking at the on-line petition to "stop UAV operations in the NAS," let me share something that I said back in the late 1970s. The audience was a group of local-airport hangar-fliers who were complaining about "those damned ultralights encroaching upon OUR airspace." I gently reminded them that America was populated with people who were just as certain that REAL airplanes were built in Everett, WA. And that our little Part-23 aerial vehicles surely didn't belong in THEIR airspace.

Folks, it's a big sky. The only way to guarantee access for any of us, is to guarantee access for all of us – including UAVs. Otherwise, there are enough votes out there to cleanse the skies of everything that isn't kerosene-fired and IFR-flight-plan controlled, from taxi-out to taxi-in – despite what AOPA will tell you.

And for Bruce Savage: I wasn't with EADS/Airbus; I was with Thomson CSF – based in the US, but intermittently on-loan to various European divisions.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | February 20, 2012 6:52 AM    Report this comment

So, I took a look at the on-line petition. Regardless of one's views regarding UAVs, the petition is insipid. It faults UAVs for being unable to comply with a Federal Aviation Regulation, specifically: § 91.113 Right-of-way rules, “(b) General. When weather conditions permit, regardless of whether an operation is conducted under instrument flight rules or visual flight rules, vigilance shall be maintained by each person operating an aircraft so as to see and avoid other aircraft.”
How else can I put this? This rule refers to the operation of an aircraft BY A PERSON. Not by a machine. Requiring a computer to “see” is about as valid as requiring a computer to wear a seat belt (there’s an FAR for that one, too). The cited rule itself acknowledges that “see-and-avoid” requires appropriate weather conditions (if you can’t see, you can’t be expected to employ visual separation techniques).
I politely suggest that the purpose of the rules – and the very reason for the existence of ATC – is to AVOID physical contact with other aircraft. How one determines proximity to other aircraft (or to surface-based obstacles) is irrelevant – as long as the employed methodology is reliable.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | February 20, 2012 7:04 AM    Report this comment

Thanks Pat for the petition. I signed it.

Posted by: Andre Abreu | February 20, 2012 8:56 AM    Report this comment

I have to agree. Trying to keep UAVs out of the airspace is about as futile a trying to sell wooden slide rules. Might as well get used it. This is a disruptive technological wave that won't be staunched by emotion or, worse, misplaced territoriality.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | February 20, 2012 9:31 AM    Report this comment

Paul B and Thomas Y,

I think wooden slide rules are really cool. Unfortunately they don't work as well as cheap electronic calculators.

The real issue with UAVs is not the question of whether or not they can "See and Avoid" other traffic. It is a need to integrate them with existing traffic in both controlled and uncontrolled airspace. Everyone, including the FAA, is well aware of this problem. There is extensive work taking place to make this work.

I don't know how the airspace conflicts between human piloted aircraft and UAVs will be worked out, but I'm sure it eventually will be. It is easy to imagine how big UAVs like Predators will work - just the same as other large aircraft. It is the little ones that can't reasonably be expected to include systems like ADS-B to avoid being run over by low flying C-150s. Perhaps a really cheap ADS-B out capability can be included in these craft so properly equipped GA aircraft can avoid them will be the answer. Perhaps some rocket scientist will come up with a better solution.

In the end UAVs are just too valuable to government and corporate operators to keep them grounded forever.

Posted by: PAUL MULWITZ | February 20, 2012 10:59 AM    Report this comment

I don't like it and I don't want it. The day is upon us when Big Brother will be keeping tabs on us 24/7. Rolled the garbage can an hour early.. ticket in the mail. Blow off some fireworks on the 4th... go to jail. Pee on your tree in the back yard.... become registered sex offender. Yeah... I'm going to fight this tooth and nail.

Posted by: Andre Abreu | February 20, 2012 11:18 AM    Report this comment

Read something the other day found interesting and fits in with the Big Brother issue

The 5-Minute Forecast made the following statement:

The Patriot Act authorized ‘sneak and peek’ search warrants — where you, the suspect, don’t have to be notified of the search until after the fact. If you’re a patriot and thought those powers would be used to fight terrorism, well you would be wrong.
Meanwhile, the National Security Agency (NSA) has opened a massive $2 billion, 1 million-square-foot complex in the Utah desert...devoted to storing and sorting through emails, web searches and business transactions. Perhaps yours.

At the NSA, thousands of analysts who once eavesdropped on troop movements of enemy soldiers in distant countries were now listening in on the bedroom conversations of innocent Americans in nearby states...

A surveillance system capable of monitoring 10 million people simultaneously this year will be able to monitor 100 million the next year — at probably half the cost. And every time new communications technology appears on the market, rest assured that someone at the NSA has already found a way to monitor it. It’s what the NSA does.

Is this how the victims of 9/11 are to be “honoured”? Are the dead to be used as tools to incite fear and paranoia forever? Will the tragedy of their deaths be always used as an excuse to usher in an Orwellian age of snitching, snooping and ’round-the-clock surveillance?

Posted by: Bruce Savage | February 20, 2012 12:27 PM    Report this comment


I respectfully disagree. It is the responsibility of each operator of aircraft within the NAS to comply with the See-and-Avoid regulations. If you fail to appreciate that, you need to discuss the issue with an FAA Inspector. ATC only separates IFR aircraft (with the exception of Class Alpha and Bravo airspace); it is the pilot's responsibility to visually avoid other aircraft in VMC, regardless of ATC's help.

If UAVs are going to operate within the NAS, they need to comply with regulations just as is required of all other operators.

Posted by: Pat Tighe | February 20, 2012 2:58 PM    Report this comment

The regulation does not require the 'person' operating the aircraft be in the aircraft.

With regard to the 'see' requirement, it depends on what your definition of 'see' is. When I fly into the L.A. basin, I can 'see' many more aircraft within a 12 NM radius on my TCAS than I can see visually. So many so, that I reduce the scaling to the 2 NM radius to see only those that may be an issue, and navigate accordingly.

Also, it was a wake up call for me when I could not see many targets even when I knew where to look.

Mode C and ADS-B out for everyone, including UAVs.

Posted by: Edd Weninger | February 20, 2012 3:25 PM    Report this comment

Pat Tighe said "If you fail to appreciate that, you need to discuss the issue with an FAA Inspector."

My experience, licensed since 1966, is that each and every FAA inspector has a different interpretation of the FARs, (which he will heartily enforce).

Posted by: Darryl Phillips | February 20, 2012 3:37 PM    Report this comment

We've beeen talking about autonomous unmanned aerial vehicles. Not only is there no person on board, there's no remotely-located person operating the vehicle, either. It's autonomous. Hence, the cited FAR ("each person operating an aircraft...") has no applicability. BTW, that reg clearly refers to seeing - not to TCAS or any other non-occular method of "seeing." You've conflated seeing with sensing, which is exactly what these UAVs are able to do - even without the benefit ( ? ) of eyes.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | February 20, 2012 3:44 PM    Report this comment

I am aware of the capabilities of "autonomous unmanned aerial vehicles" and all do have a remotely located person(s) continually monitoring their function, with over-ride capability.

Much the same way Airbus pilots fly their planes.

Semantics. I will argue that I have a much better ability to "see and avoid" with TCAS.

Posted by: Edd Weninger | February 20, 2012 3:57 PM    Report this comment

Ed, look up the word autonomous. "having autonomy; not subject to control from outside; independent: a subsidiary that functioned as an autonomous unit."

Not subject to control from outside. By definition, an autonomous vehicle does its own thing without people in the loop.

Posted by: Darryl Phillips | February 20, 2012 4:15 PM    Report this comment

Edd: Autonomous vehicles have NO remotely-located "pilots" who can take over the vehicle. They execute their missions without supervision by anyone or any thing. You program 'em and release 'em. They take care of themselves from the time of release.

Think of the situation wherein an instructor authorizes a student pilot to conduct a solo cross-country flight. It's really not all that dissimilar.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | February 20, 2012 4:31 PM    Report this comment

With all due respect, the argument, that a computer is controlling the UAV(s) is spurious. There is always someone responsible for UAV operations.

I'm currently awaiting the final decision on a UAV NMAC I experienced near Palmdale January 13, 2012. ATC was unable to raise the operator by radio, no chase-plane was evident on High Desert TRACON radar tapes. I was forced to alter my course to avoid the errant (virtually invisible) aircraft. If pilots fail to object to the hazard UAVs pose to the public, they will proliferate and not be required to meet the same regulations as certificated airmen.

Sign the petition: www.snipurl.com/22aa8t8

Posted by: Pat Tighe | February 20, 2012 4:47 PM    Report this comment

Pat: Quite simply, you're wrong. There are hundreds (actual figure is classified) of totally autonomous UAVs flying around today. They're given mission parameters, then "released into the wild." They conduct their missions in accordance with pre-programmed rules and with regard to information that they acquire on their own, during the mission. The people who programmed them and who released them could be long dead and gone, but the bird will carry out its mission. Count on it.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | February 20, 2012 5:05 PM    Report this comment

I would classify the person who released those UAVs, or the employing entity of that person, as the operator of those UAVs. Legally, someone is responsible for the operation of those UAVs. When one causes damage, you can bet the defendant in the resulting law suit will be considered the operator of the UAV. Or are you intimating that those UAVs are not subject to US laws and regulations? (like the "Ninga" flight leader in the fatal civil/military MAC of November 16, 2000 where the USAF issued a verbal reprimand: see NTSB report MIA01FA028A.)

Sign the petition: www.snipurl.com/22aa8t8

Posted by: Pat Tighe | February 20, 2012 6:18 PM    Report this comment

Pat: There's a vast difference between an "operator" and a "pilot." Tort law aside, the FARs deal with this topic, as does NTSB-830. In the case of autonomous aerial vehicles, there is no pilot, and the persons ultimately responsible for the deployment of the vehicle (whom you might characterize as the vehicle’s “operators”) need not be in a position to "see" and avoid, nor to create any ability to ensure that real-time control of the vehicle can be assumed and maintained by any person.

Pilot error is the primary cause of aircraft accidents. Persons who seek to ban pilotless aircraft would do well to consider that the day may come – soon – in which a compelling case could be made for banning that most error-prone element from the aviation safety equation. I don’t want to see a prohibition on human pilots. But I recognize that properly-implemented automation will provide an improvement over the level of safety that can be attained by humans. Attempts to ban such automation will be seen for what they are.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | February 21, 2012 6:19 AM    Report this comment

"...I'm currently awaiting the final decision on a UAV NMAC I experienced near Palmdale January 13, 2012. ATC was unable to raise the operator by radio, no chase-plane was evident on High Desert TRACON radar tapes. I was forced to alter my course to avoid the errant (virtually invisible) aircraft..."

Exactly the reason the FAA needs to define in the Regulations the protocols under which UAVs can be operated.

Put them under ATC with IFR flight plans, require a ADS-B out, or transponder code, downlink TCAS from the UAV to the operator, downlink ATC comms from the UAV to the operator and uplink comms from the operator to ATC.

All technically doable and would make them look just like any other aircraft to us in the system.

I believe the recent FAA funding bill requires the FAA to have rules for UAV operation ready within three years. Think they'll be done?

Posted by: Edd Weninger | February 22, 2012 1:52 PM    Report this comment

Edd: “IFR flight plans for all” won't work – most of the UAV flights are "block airspace" in nature, from the surface to FLxxx. Remember, the regs will have to include all of those tiny RC airplanes, helicopters, blimps, etc., that currently are flown recreationally by hobbyists. Plus all of the commercial operations of similar (or identical) vehicles that presently are prohibited by the FAA – based not on any regulation, but on a largely-unenforced “policy.” What we need are new rules that are designed to achieve the objective of ensuring safe operation of both manned and autonomous vehicles – in the same airspace, at the same time. Trying to force UAVs to employ the same methods as manned vehicles is as inappropriate as requiring the operator of an automobile to tether his car to a rail near the watering trough, while he’s in the saloon.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | February 23, 2012 7:06 AM    Report this comment

Edd: "Put them under ATC with IFR flight plans, require a ADS-B out, or transponder code, downlink TCAS from the UAV to the operator, downlink ATC comms from the UAV to the operator and uplink comms from the operator to ATC."

While that would be a step in the right direction, it still fails to address the inability of current UAVs to comply with see-and-avoid regulations while operating in VMC, thus placing the onus on pilots in the cockpit; decidedly unjust IMO. UAVs need to be equipped to see-and-avoid. Anything else is irresponsible. Blind UAVs are creating the problem and should be responsible for addressing it, not pilots.

Sign the petition: www.snipurl.com/22aa8t8

Posted by: Pat Tighe | February 23, 2012 8:28 AM    Report this comment

Yars: "What we need are new rules that are designed to achieve the objective of ensuring safe operation of both manned and autonomous vehicles – in the same airspace, at the same time."

The old rules work pretty well for sighted pilots. :-) Trying to accommodate blind UAVs incapable of avoiding other aircraft operating within the NAS is ridiculous and irresponsible. With all the wiz-bang technology with which UAVs are equipped, surely enabling UAVs to avoid other flights can't be THAT difficult. The defiant UAV manufacturers/designers and military are simply unconcerned with the public/civil hazard they're causing; audacious hubris pure and simple.

It's beginning to appear that it will take a UAV-Airliner MAC to resolve the issue.

Are you able to offer any such "new rules" as you suggest?

"Permanently giving away" huge blocks of airspace, such as the 40 mile diameter from the surface to FL130 NOTAMed in 10/008, is an unreasonable imposition, and is unsustainable as UAV operations proliferate.

Sign the petition: www.snipurl.com/22aa8t8

Posted by: Pat Tighe | February 23, 2012 8:51 AM    Report this comment

Pat: I'm not suggesting giving away ANY blocks of airspace. I've already said that we need a system that will ensure that manned and autonomous vehicles will coexist safely in common airspace. I've also suggested that attempting to apply the same methods that we've used for manned vehicles, to autonomous vehicles, is silly - they're simply not comparable.

This topic is both interesting and timely - in light of the planned switchover to an ATC methodology that relies upon self-reporting of vehicle positions within the airspace. Think about that... silent targets become invisible under that paradigm. Additionally, the entire shebang relies upon constant availability of the GPS network. When some national crisis prompts the military to silence those satellites, everything in the air will have to rely upon onboard inertial nav, and/or upon dead reckoning and the presence of VFR weather at a suitable airfield.

I spend a lot of time doing failure-mode-analysis. Our brainy fearless leaders have elected to put a lot of our eggs in one basket – that is owned and operated by someone else. I look upon the UAV conundrum as an opportunity to utilize autonomous forms of sensing – which must provide an Equivalent Level of Safety to what we have in place now (manned vehicles and radar-based position-sensing).

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | February 23, 2012 11:19 AM    Report this comment


Thank you for sharing you UAV/UAS knowledge. Most appreciated.

At the risk of being off-topic, I agree with you about NextGen ATC. It's a tragically flawed boondoggle, and I've been lobbying hard against its potential hazards for years. Given that the "cost savings" of decommissioning ATC RADARs has been used to leverage NextGen ATC implementation, there will be no empirical way of knowing the position of aircraft.

What happens when a CME disrupts satellite communications, and all the airliners flying with reduced separation suddenly find themselves without GPS, ADS-B, ground-based RADARs, etc? It's a Rx for disaster, but you can bet Boeing will become more wealthy implementing it.

Why can't UAV manufacturers implement sense-and-avoid in domestically operated UAVs?

Have you seen this: Integrating Department of Defense Unmanned Aerial Systems into the National Airspace Structure: tinyurl.com/7oncbkr

Posted by: Pat Tighe | February 23, 2012 11:53 AM    Report this comment

UAVs come in all sizes and shapes. Some of them are small enough that a mid-air collision with a normal sized airplane would be similar to the same plane hitting a small bird. This is to be avoided, but not "At any cost".

I think now is the time for us all to brainstorm on ways to make UAVs and manned aircraft compatible with each other. I don't think the answer is to make the unmanned craft "See and avoid" others. This doesn't work very well for human piloted vehicles and would be even worse for machine piloted ones.

I have to laugh at the hard-sell efforts to get people to sign this silly petition. What do you proponents of this action think the result will be? This is a technical problem and a political one. If all the pilots in the country signed this silly document it wouldn't even make a dent in the political arena.

Perhaps we need a new "Visible" scheme for avoid hitting each other. A bright light wouldn't work because the government types want stealth for their drones. Perhaps a blinking infrared beacon and simple infrared sensor on other aircraft would work. Perhaps ADSB-out would help with the bigger UAVs which can handle the weight.

I don't think the FAA will allow free access to NAS for UAVs until a good solution is found. We are all working on finding one. Let's keep coming up with ideas and evaluating those of others.

Posted by: PAUL MULWITZ | February 23, 2012 12:40 PM    Report this comment

It seems to me, that if UAVs create a hazard to aviation due to their noncompliance with federal regulations, their operators should be exclusively responsible for that hazard. But in the event of a UAV MAC with a conventional aircraft, you can rest assured the FAA/NTSB will find the airborne pilot culpable.

I applaud your thoughtful, constructive suggestions. It begs the question, why the FAA doesn't required UAVs to be TCAS equipped as a condition of their COA? That would address virtually all NAS users except those without electrical systems.

You'll find a lot of detect-sense-and-avoid information here: tiny.cc/qupjr

Sign the petition: www.snipurl.com/22aa8t8

Posted by: Pat Tighe | February 23, 2012 4:06 PM    Report this comment

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