Aircraft and Pilots Group Brings Drone Pilots Under Its Wing

A new membership category welcomes drone pilots to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. It hopes to promote safety and to unite manned and unmanned aircraft pilots.

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) has developed a new line of membership options for drone pilots. It’s part of a larger effort to unite manned and unmanned aircraft pilots and to promote safety as they share the same airspace.

“One big issue is the safe integration of drones,” said Kathleen “Kat” Swain, senior director of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) programs. Safety is a top priority for AOPA, and its history puts the group in “an excellent position to help with the safe integration of unmanned, remote pilots,” she said. “It was a natural fit.”

The new membership category “bridges the gap between the manned and unmanned worlds,” but the two are not so different, Swain said. Drone pilots are “a sibling of general aviation,” and their needs and wants are similar. “A lot of remote pilots are looking for a community, and support in flying and in their freedom to fly,” and the association offers its members that kind of support in several forms, she said.

Remote pilots need the same resources and tools that manned pilots need, Swain said, such as support through advocacy, training and education, access to insurance and legal services, and publications. The association’s education offerings include a course on drones.

Swain and many AOPA members are pilots of both manned and unmanned aircraft. The association solicited input from its members on the move to include drone pilots, and the overwhelming majority supported it. “It made perfect sense to bring them over and welcome them to the general aviation community,” Swain said.  “All of us share a common love of aviation.”

Although some drone pilots were pilots of manned aircraft before they learned to fly drones, others have no other aviation experience, which—as AOPA pointed out—means they may have no prior connection to general aviation and no exposure to a culture of safety. The FAA estimates that 1.3 million pilots will be certified to operate drones by 2020, and remote pilots will outnumber manned aircraft pilots within a few years.

AOPA has been active in drone-related issues for about a decade. It has contributed to and commented on proposed regulations and policy about drones and will continue to do so. AOPA also represents general aviation on the Federal Aviation Administration Drone Advisory Committee; co-chairs the 26 Coalition for UAS Safety, a group dedicated to safe integration of unmanned aircraft; and has served on FAA task forces created to study and recommend regulations.


Allison Torres Burtka

By Allison Torres Burtka

Allison Torres Burtka, a longtime association journalist, is a freelance writer and editor in West Bloomfield, Michigan. MORE

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