With Fewer Regulatory Restrictions, Drones Could One Day Replace Small Planes and Helicopters

Drones are becoming so popular with businesses and consumers that it’s often forgotten that other aircraft are still filling critical niches in today’s economy.  Moreover, they will likely do so for years to come, no matter how useful and cost-effective drones may become. The reason isn’t necessarily a diehard refusal by ‘“late adopters” to leave their operational comfort zone.  It could just be that drones, for all their demonstrated utility, may not be as effective as manned aircraft in meeting the demands of every contingency.  Where might small piloted aircraft or helicopters still be the vehicle of choice?  Three areas, in particular, stand out

Long-range aerial surveillance. Drones and small manned aircraft have similar video and photographic capabilities but gas-powered aerial vehicles can stay in the air longer and are better able to capture footage in a long continuous corridor at a higher altitude.  A good example is border patrolling.  Drones can zoom in low at specific crossing points to detect movements of people and cargo and can do so more surreptitiously.  But high flying craft can give a fuller view of border activity by flying continuously for hundreds of miles, distances far beyond the range of the average drone.  Even much shorter air patrolling – for example, a police chase – might still favor manned aircraft.  Drones can only fly for 4-5 miles (and roughly 30 minutes) before losing their power, which limits their utility in many law enforcement operations. Drones are also subject to signals interference that can suddenly render them non-functional; manned aircraft face no such obstacles.

Aerial Transportation.   Drones lack the platform and storage space to carry passengers as well as large amounts of cargo.  Passenger drones may one day remedy this shortcoming, but they’re still in the experimental stage.  In the short term (the next 5 years, perhaps), “flying taxis” might allow for the transport of a few passengers; helicopters and small planes can carry far more.  Properly designed drones  might also facilitate small package deliveries. But for larger cargo, including heavy furniture and machinery, drones are no match for larger manned aircraft.  Even some medical supply deliveries – for example,  blood samples requiring on-board refrigeration – are still beyond the capabilities of most of today’s drones.

Weather Resistance.  Drones are notoriously vulnerable to wind and rain – and to inclement weather, generally. Their maximum wind resistance, on average, is just 22.5 mph.  Drones are more easily blown off course or downed, damaging or destroying the aircraft and its valuable equipment and cargo.  Small planes and helicopters can still fly in heavy rain, unless visibility is poor.  Cold weather is another critical issue. When temperatures fall below freezing, drone battery efficiency is reduced by 50% or more.

Arguably, some of these limitations are more regulatory than strictly technological in nature. For example, drones are generally limited to altitudes below 400 feet. in deference to manned aircraft, which limits their availability for high altitude surveillance. Flying drones at night is often prohibited, further limiting their availability.  Moreover, flights beyond visual line of sight may require special regulatory approval.  As drone technology improves, so will drone capabilities.  Passenger drones, for example, could one day function as efficiently as helicopter transports.

For all of these reasons, drones will continue to encroach on the roles performed by manned aircraft.  Their superior maneuverability is undeniable.  Drones also have unmatched abilities in the area of close visual inspection – with drone inspections increasingly conducted in tight enclosed spaces as well as outdoors, a capability denied to manned aircraft.  Drones can also avoid obstacles that would place planes and helicopters at risk.  Finally, drones save time, money and human lives – they perform their assigned tasks more quickly and without human operators, they invariably reduce the safety risk while doing so.

These advantages won’t render small aircraft or helicopters irrelevant, but perhaps, in time, far less essential.

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