Dreams of the World: From Fighter Pilot to Drone Advocate

Missy Cummings at the Drones and Aerial Robotics Conference (DARC), held at New York University. Cummings was one the Navy´s first female fighter pilots, and is now a professor of aeronautics and engineering at MIT and Duke. Photo © KIKE CALVO
Missy Cummings at the Drones and Aerial Robotics Conference (DARC), recently held at New York University. Cummings was one the Navy´s first female fighter pilots, and is now a Professor of Aeronautics and Engineering at MIT and Duke. Photo © KIKE CALVO


Dreams of the World: One Dream a Time. This post is the latest in the series Dreams of the World, which profiles interesting people Kike meets during his travels. Drones and Small Unmanned Aerial Systems Special Series. 

¨I have many dreams. I dream that I can help this nation make the leap to the Jetson’s age, in terms of the intersection of drones and flying cars,¨ explains Missy Cummings, 46, a Ph.D. in Systems Engineering from the University of Virginia and one of the Navy’s first female fighter-pilots. ¨I hope to be an inspiration to young people to show them that engineering can actually span the arts and sciences, and is deeply rewarding and worth the investment. And I dream that I can do all this while raising a healthy and happy daughter as a single mother.¨

¨I remember wanting to be a pilot like the ones in the TV show Baa Baa Black Sheep,¨ said Cummings, an associate professor in the Duke University Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science and the Duke Institute of Brain Sciences. She was born in a military base in Japan. Her research interests include human supervisory control, human-unmanned vehicle interaction, human-autonomous system collaboration, human-systems engineering, and the ethical and social impact of technology.
When asked about her experience flying fighter planes, she referred to raw power. ¨Taking off in afterburner, flying 100 ft over the ground going 500 mph, dog-fighting with other aircraft, taking off and landing on an aircraft carriers – when in these moments, I could literally feel my testosterone surging,¨ described Cummings.

¨I never thought I would be a drone advocate – while in the military, I was a staunch advocate for the importance of the pilot, explained Cummings. ¨ I remember flying down in a volcanic trench in the Philippines at over 300mph.¨

Cummings was one of the keynote speakers at the Drones and Aerial Robotics Conference (DARC) held last weekend in New York University, convened by the Engelberg Center on Innovation Law and Policy. In an effort to broaden the conversation beyond the usual drone debates and delve deep into the impact of unmanned systems on society, DARC was the first large multidisciplinary conference about aerial robotics, with a focus on civilian applications.

¨The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is using the privacy argument as a shield against introducing the critical changes needed to open up our national airspace to drones, ¨ said Cummings. ¨The FAA, like the Air Force, is very much struggling with core identity issues of what it means to be a pilot.¨ The U.S. Congress has set a deadline for the FAA to create regulations and technical requirements  that will integrate drones into the NAS by 2015.


Five good things people should know about drones according to Cummings

  1. They will help us dramatically improve food quality and production.
  2. They can deliver medical supplies quickly to inaccessible areas in third world nations (as well as in this country.
  3. They have been critical in anti-poaching efforts worldwide.
  4. They allow anyone with a curiosity for exploration to see amazing sights and images from the air, which up to now has only been accessible to an elite few.
  5. Drones are providing a much-needed lifeline for the ailing aerospace industry.

Four things people probably aren´t aware when it comes to drones according to Cummings:

  1. The bulk of commercial passenger and cargo aircraft could be relatively easily converted to drones.
  2. Drones have been used in performance arts and in many other entertainment venues.
  3. A human will always be in the loop somewhere and for the foreseeable future, drones will never be able to truly replace humans.
  4. The US has lost its critical edge in drone development because of regulatory stagnation, and the global drone market will soon surpass that in the US.


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Learn More:

Popular drones include the ARDrone from Parrot and the Phantom by DJI Innovations.

Additional Readings: 

Getting Started with Hobby Quadcopters and Drones: Learn about, buy and fly these amazing aerial vehicles

Drone Entrepreneurship: 30 Businesses You Can Start

Drone Art: Baltimore

Military Robots and Drones: A Reference Handbook (Contemporary World Issues)

Kill Decision

The Media Source Presents Drones: Are They Watching You? Magazine

Introduction to Unmanned Aircraft Systems

Rise of the Drones II: Examining the Legality of Unmanned Targeting: One Hundred Eleventh Congress, Second Session, April 28, 2010

Drone Pilot (Cool Careers)

2011 Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Encyclopedia: UAVs, Drones, Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA), Weapons and Surveillance – Roadmap, Flight Plan, Reliability Study, Systems News and Notes

Fly by Wire Aircraft: Fighters, Drones, and Airliners

Introduction to Remote Sensing, Fifth Edition




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Meet the Author
Award-winning photographer, journalist, and author Kike Calvo (pronounced key-keh) specializes in culture and environment. He has been on assignment in more than 90 countries, working on stories ranging from belugas in the Arctic to traditional Hmong costumes in Laos. Kike is pioneering in using small unmanned aerial systems to produce aerial photography as art, and as a tool for research and conservation. He is also known for his iconic photographic project, World of Dances, on the intersection of dance, nature, and architecture. His work has been published in National Geographic, New York Times, Time, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New York Magazine, Rolling Stone, and Vanity Fair, among others. Kike teaches photography workshops and has been a guest lecturer at leading institutions like the School of Visual Arts and Yale University. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic blog Voices. He has authored nine books, including Drones for Conservation; So You Want to Create Maps Using Drones?; Staten Island: A Visual Journey to the Lighthouse at the End of the World; and Habitats, with forewords by David Doubilet and Jean-Michel Cousteau. Kike’s images have been exhibited around the world, and are represented by the National Geographic Image Collection. Kike was born in Spain and is based in New York. When he is not on assignment, he is making gazpacho following his grandmother’s Andalusian recipe. You can travel to Colombia with Kike: www.colombiaphotoexpeditions.com