Document Type




Drone technology is evolving rapidly. Microdrones—what the FAA calls “sUAS”—already on the market at the $1,000 level, have the capability to supplement manned helicopters in support of public safety operations, news reporting, and powerline and pipeline patrol, when manned helicopter support is infeasible, untimely, or unsafe.

Larger drones–"machodrones”–are not yet available outside battlefield and counterterrorism spaces. Approximating the size of manned helicopters, but without pilots, or with human pilots being optional, their design is still in its infancy as designers await greater clarity in the regulatory requirements that will drive airworthiness certification.

This article evaluates drone technology and design and considers how well existing and likely drone capabilities satisfy mission requirements. It draws upon the authors’ collective experience in flying news helicopters, giving helicopter flight instruction, practicing and teaching law, flying drug surveillance mission, evaluating best practices for helicopter support for public safety activities, and in aeronautical engineering. Its analysis and conclusions with respect to microdrones are supported by empirical results obtained from a series of flight tests of currently available microdrones.

The ready availability of microdrones will tempt users to deploy them even before their operational use is legal. If the FAA wants to achieve its goal of managing the introduction of these new flight technologies into the national airspace system safely, it must accelerate the regulatory process and do a better job of matching regulatory requirements with mission reality and likely aircraft characteristics. Integration of machodrones will take longer, and the FAA has more time to work with stakeholders to evolve a framework to test the limits of remote control technologies as substitutes for pilots in the cockpit. The main question here is not whether the FAA will be able to channel technology, but whether the ultimate cost and capabilities of machodrones will make them attractive to purchasers and operators and whether actual vehicles will be able to compete with manned helicopters.