Jim Williams told hundreds of corporate pilots Wednesday that drones are probably the most radical change to aviation since the advent of the jet engine.
That’s partly because the availability of drones to consumers is creating hundreds of thousands of people controlling aircraft in the airspace who have little to no aviation experience.
“The problem is you have all of these people who never had anything to do with aviation,” said Williams, adding that the number of drones registered with the Federal Aviation Administration recently reached 550,000. “That’s more than the number of registered pilots in the U.S.
“All of a sudden, they’re up there mixing it up with the rest of us.”
Williams was among more than a dozen speakers presenting at Bombardier Business Aircraft’s Safety Standdown at the Hyatt Regency Wichita on Wednesday. The three-day event that kicked off Tuesday attracted more than 500 pilots and other aviation professionals from inside and outside the U.S.
This year marks the 20th year the Canadian parent of Learjet has held the safety training event in Wichita.
Williams retired from the FAA as its unmanned aircraft systems executive in 2013 and is a principal in the UAS practice at the global law firm of Dentons.
He said despite the influx of small drones entering the nation’s airspace, the FAA small drone registration process does require the drone operator to at least review basic operational safety requirements, such as maintaining visual line of sight of the drone at all times as well as not operating near airports or over crowds of people.
He said there have been no confirmed collisions between drones and manned airplanes, and so-called near misses between the two are inconclusive because drones aren’t picked up on radar. And if controllers can’t see drones on radar then the near-misses aren’t recorded by the FAA.
More regulation of drones and their operations is coming.
“(The drone registration requirement) is a first step,” he said. “It’s not the end all, be all.”
The “next big thing coming” in the business of drones is counter-drone technology, Williams said.
Several companies are working on technology that can disable drones in flight, he said, noting that it’s illegal to shoot them with a firearm.
He said one such counter-drone system is called Sky Tracker and it allows the user to pinpoint exactly where the operator of an errant drone is located in real time.
Safety Standdown attendees also heard on Wednesday from an industrial and organizational psychologist from the FBI who gave them ways to work with difficult teammates, and the manager of an FAA and Air Line Pilots Association substance abuse in aviation program who outlined a program aimed at returning pilots suffering from alcoholism or substance abuse back to flight.
Jerry Siebenmark: 316-268-6576, @jsiebenmark