A friend allowed me to fly his new drone this weekend along a quiet area of the beaches in the Bronx, New York. He came prepared: He checked the new "Know Before you Fly" app, reviewed the winds, and picked a spot away from most of the people.
As we flew the orange quadcopter overhead, I was struck by what I saw. Kids came over the watch. They pointed to the sky. They laughed. And they kept staring skyward. It was a scene from the 1950s or 60s, when kids would see an airplane overhead and watch for as long as the plane stayed in view. But airplanes are old and commonplace and kids- just aren't into them anymore. We know this, because the number of would-be pilots entering pilot training keeps going down. The number of airplanes being sold is barely treading water.
But drones (really Unmanned Aviation Systems) are new, high tech, and accessible. You can operate them off your smartphone- almost as if you're playing Pokeman Go. They are expensive, but a lot less so than flying lessons. And, as of now, there aren't burdensome regulations that will crimp their growth.
Kids aren't the only ones drones are enticing into aviation. Several friends who fly drones have told me they now want to become pilots of manned planes. And that's the "a-ha" moment. What if the thing the general aviation industry fears the most, actually saves the industry?
Remember the VCR? The movie industry fought to the near-death to block VCRs from being sold, afraid home recording would destroy them. Within a few years, however, it became obvious that VCRs actually saved Hollywood. We could be seeing this trend in aviation.
There are several hundred thousand drones registered with the FAA and that number is expected to grow rapidly. The number of drone pilots registering with the FAA, taking courses, buying drone-related educational material can only go up as well.
There needs to be smart, measured rules but as long as the FAA doesn't over-regulate and scare away participants in this new, exciting part of aviation, drones won't just bring new drone pilots into aviation, they will bring new pilots of all sorts.
General aviation needs to embrace the drone business. The kids pointing to the sky is the sign aviation has been looking for.