The U.S. Has a Drone Problem


Nowhere is the tension between technology and safety evident than the “drone wars”, pitting the FAA against Hollywood.  So far, Hollywood is winning.  Last September, the FAA granted permits to several production companies to operate commercial drones.

The drones must weigh no more than 55 lbs, fly no faster than 58 mph, and no higher than 400 feet above the ground (AGL).  FAA rules for hobbyists require drones to fly under 400 feet and at least five miles from an airport.  But those rules are not being followed.  Which makes perfect sense, since I can order a commercial quality drone straight off Amazon that comes with all of four hours training and its own case, for $9,750.  Or I can get a LanLan DJI Phantom 2 quadcopter for just $1,738.50, although it probably won’t arrive before Christmas.

It’s clear that the FAA is not equipped to deal with this problem, and any regulations that come out of this process won’t protect air safety, and will in fact hinder development of a growing market.  The industry must take the problem head-on with safety, training, and proficiency programs.  The FAA can then catch up in a few years with some kind of certification process.

What’s the problem?

Drones and UAV’s like the DJI Phantom are so easy to fly, that anyone, with zero experience, can open the box and be aviating immediately.  The FAA has no way to enforce the five mile rule, or the 400 foot rule.  They don’t even know who has bought a drone.  This year, thousands of new drones will be unwrapped at Christmas, and immediately taken outside into the wild blue yonder.  And that’s troubling.

Since June 1, commercial pilots have reported 25 “near miss” events with drones.

Many of the close calls occurred during takeoffs and landings at the nation’s busiest airports, presenting a new threat to aviation safety after decades of steady improvement in air travel.

Now that Hollywood is involved, the pressure to approve more and more commercial drone applications from production companies such as Pictorvision is enormous, and the FAA is caving in.  The Washington Post reported,

On Wednesday, a camera-toting drone operated by one of the filmmakers, Pictorvision, flew off a set in California and disappeared, according to an FAA report. Tom Hallman, the president of Pictorvision, said crew members found the 20-pound drone the next day in “rugged terrain” on a private ranch about 100 yards from where they had been filming near Santa Clarita. He said no one was injured.

Many drones are equipped with GPS and “return to takeoff position” programming if they lose contact with their controller.  But since the drones have no safety standards or inspection requirements, we simply don’t know if the software or hardware is subject to failure, or what happens when it does fail.  A drone could very well get stuck in “climb” mode and head right on up into active airspace.

In 2012, Congress gave the FAA a mandate to integrate drones into our national airspace system by September 2015.  In an agency where a single aircraft certification can take three to five years, this is an impossible task.  It will result in political decisions being made at the spur of the moment, until some tragedy focuses public attention on the problem.  This is not an “if it happens”, it’s a “when it happens”.

What should we do?

I am not trying to be excessively alarmist, but there’s reason for alarm.  The country is seriously behind in dealing with the drone explosion.  Rushing the FAA (by throwing more money at the problem) into poorly considered decisions, against the advice of its own safety inspectors is a recipe for disaster.

Archie Stafford of the Academy of Model Aeronautics has been giving hands-on drone seminars, and he points out the double-edged sword here: “With amazing new drones out there like 3DR has, it’s like if you can operate a mouse you can make these things fly. And while it may be easy, we’ve got to remember that 99% of these new pilots won’t have an aviation background. That’s where education and proper regulation come in.”

The industry itself needs to get its act together, because the FAA is going to slow-roll this project by at least two years (and likely several life-taking disasters).  Companies like Unmanned Vehicle University have the right idea, where you can earn a UAV Basic Flight Training certificate (currently worth the paper it’s printed on, but useful for at least basic safety).  If the manufacturers got together and required some kind of registration and training, they will likely avoid a very messy and costly series of lawsuits when some untrained idiot flies his drone into a passenger jet and causes a crash.

Don’t say “that can’t happen”.  Fly it into the windscreen or into an engine intake and it can do some damage.  At the rate of four close calls per month, which will only increase this is bound to happen, and soon.

And then Congress will act, and the drone industry will become another price-inflated, lawsuit-driven regulatory hippopotamus like general aviation manufacturing companies, where innovation is about 20 years behind technology, and profit evaporates except for the richest clients.  Only 674 single engine piston aircraft were produced in America for all of 2013.  This is a 97% drop since the height of the general aviation market in the 1970’s.

As a pilot I see the missed opportunity that GA had and let the lawyers eat their lunch, with Congress setting the agenda. This will happen with the drones if left to the FAA, who has an interest in protecting the status quo.  If the drone industry doesn’t watch its six, it could implode as quickly as it’s exploded.

Video from The Washington Post: http://wapo.st/1HmpfiI