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Pilot pressure explains FAA’s indecisiveness on drones

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Drone policy in the U.S. is a mess: the Federal Aviation Administration is currently grounding commercial use of unmanned aircraft while letting any amateur imbecile — like this guy — fly freely. Meanwhile, the agency keeps missing deadlines to propose a plan for integrating drones into civilian skies.

The situation is a source of frustration to researchers, photographers and companies, which have been stuck twiddling their thumbs even as other countries leap ahead in developing new industries tied to unmanned aircraft. But if it’s any consolation, there’s now an explanation for the FAA’s arbitrary approach.

Wall Street Journal report suggests that the FAA is dragging its feet on drone rules large part due to pressure from commercial pilots whose job could be at risk from commercial competition:

Aerial surveyors, photographers and moviemaking pilots are increasingly losing business to robots that often can do their jobs faster, cheaper and better. That competition, paired with concerns about midair collisions with drones, has made commercial pilots some of the fiercest opponents to unmanned aircraft.

The Journal account also points to why, in the handful of cases where the FAA has granted an exemption to the ban on commercial drone use, it has imposed onerous conditions:

In many of those exemptions, the Air Line Pilots Association, the biggest U.S. pilots union, and the National Agricultural Aviation Association, a trade group for crop dusters, helped persuade the FAA to place tight restrictions on the drone flights, including requiring operators to have pilot licenses and to keep the devices within eyeshot.

To be fair, there are legitimate safety concerns associated with unmanned aircraft. But the FAA’s current approach, which gives free reign to hobbyists while stifling commercial opportunities, does nothing to address these.

The smarter way to go about this, according to experts I’ve cited before, is for the agency to create buffer zones in which drones can operate at low-altitudes and away from airports. This could involve designating new zone fly-zones to go with the existing ones shown on this FAA map (I’ve added the arrows that point to Class G space which is unregulated):

FAA Airspace

Meanwhile, the FAA could also follow the lead of drone-friendly France or that of Canada, where the federal aviation agency has been issuing thousands of permits to businesses that are incorporating drones into everything from real estate to farm surveillance to TV filming.

Instead, the U.S. appears stuck in the worst of all worlds when it comes to drones:

13 Responses to “Pilot pressure explains FAA’s indecisiveness on drones”

  1. Allen Newland

    Some great comments in the article and below.

    What needs to happen is (as already stated) to educate the masses instead of targeting in on the “Commercial UAS” pilot. The commercial sector is the smallest portion of the pie (by far). By spending your time/money to control the smallest sector of the industry is an extreme waste of resources. Also those who have the time, money and knowledge to fly Commercial Drones are the least likely the cause these problems because they have the most to lose.

    I’ve been flying RC (planes, helis, jets, quads etc) for over 37 years now and we have always self regulated to ensure safety of the public as well as our own industry. We spent many many hours building, learning the mechanics and most of all Learning To Fly because it was the only way to fly. The new wave of “cough-pilots-cough” only need to know how to charge & install the batteries, flip a couple of switches and within minutes can be at 2000’AGL with no clue what/why/how they are doing. This is the group that will bring down another aircraft, fly over a crowded stadium, and buzz people on the ground at a college campus. Has there been any “Commercial UAS” instances that anyone can cite? The people doing to offenses either don’t care about the safety or they don’t know. Commercial UAS pilots spend the time and money to know and be safe because it is their livelihood at stake as well as some pretty expensive equipment. Just because they make a living from it doesn’t make it dangerous… usually just the opposite. Just for the record I am an UAS pilot and I have several from extremely micro (fit in the palm of my hand) up to larger more powerful ones that weigh a few pounds.

    In addition to flying RC for years I’m also a Private Pilot (Single Engine Land) so I do fully understand and appreciate the attempt to keep the skies safe. I just feel like the FAA/NTSB aren’t looking at this from the correct perspective in the least and it’s a gross waste of time and resources to continue down the current path they are on.

    I don’t have the perfect answer (I do like the smart phone APP idea… it has some strong merit going for it) but I am 100% positive that restricting Commercial UAS is going about it from the tail trying to reach the mouth. Direct your resources where you’ll do the most good and get the most BANG for your BUCK.

  2. Sorry to dispel any conspiracy theory, even that propounded by the credible WSJ, but pilots have virtually no sway on this. The FAA staff is having trouble working through the complex and multiple regulatory words needed to certificate aircraft, license airmen, separate UAS traffic from the airspace, assure safety of those on the ground and set precise rules which cover all of these dimension. They also must satisfy two levels of Obama Administration Policy mavens. This analysis is based on 40 years of FAA work, including a term as FAA Chief Counsel. Appropriate aphorism– “never assume malice when competence may be the issue”.

    • Thanks for you sharing that bear65.. It’s helpful to hear from someone on the inside. I get the sense your old agency could use some assistance on not just its policy process, but its PR! I cover several regulatory agencies, and the FAA’s communication strategy is among the worst of them.

      I’m not saying PR is a substitute for substance, but a lack of it can exacerbate problems and perception.

  3. busdriver

    Observing airspace requirements is a challenge for many general aviation pilots, especially in some of the most congested urban areas of the country. Drone pilot training and accountability are going to be key to operations going forward. When a drone is sucked up into a commercial airliners engine and shuts it down who will be held accountable?

  4. Alex Jauch

    Not buying any of the anti-drone arguments. They are crap.

    Limit the drones to 250 feet AGL and no closer than .5 mile from any airport.

    There is no way flying below 250 feet is safe for any commercial or amateur pilot. I am both an amateur pilot and a drone owner. We deal with these types of separation rules all the time and they mostly work (except for that time I accidentally flew into Class B restricted airspace, but we won’t talk about that here).

    The only exception I can see is crop dusters, but they are pretty rare, You would need some sort of NOTAM system for them. Ironically, this danger exists now since hobbyists are completely unregulated while the commercial folks (who would most likely care about such rules) are completely banned.

    A much better answer (but not likely due to the government’s complete lack of technical savvy) is to require that all drone pilots “register” with a smartphone app so that they can be spotted by other pilots. You would have to “beacon” on just like a regular plane’s transponder. You could write an app like this in a couple of months with any decent software team, but I’m sure the feds would bungle the job.

    A less attractive option but very workable is to require a pilot’s license for drones over xx weight. The reality is that a micro-drone that weighs only a couple of ounces is unlikely to take down a light aircraft. For cars, we have similar rules already based on Gross Vehicle Weights. Then you can regulate the larger drones just like aircraft (license, VFR, transponder, etc.). I don’t really like this but it is simple and would fit into the current system with no major technology changes.

    What about privacy? Non issue. Flying is a privilege, just like driving. Planes carry transponders today, drones should be no different. Just make the technology appropriate for the device.

    • Tom Brusehaver

      How about that 20 car pile up on the I-5 in Los Angeles. The one where 6 drones were flying over it trying to capture the carnage for the local media. When the EMS helicopter showed up, and gave up rescuing people. There was no way to get the drones out of the way, and the pilot didn’t want to risk lives by having one of the drones get caught up in the helicopter. The one where the two drones crashed into each other and landed on a seriously hurt victim. (ok that is a future scenario that people are trying to avoid).

      You seem to get it, there will need to be some drone operator training, and standards. Since you didn’t quantify what the training will be, or the size of drone that needs this training, you see the FAA’s challenge. They are coming up with those details as fast as they can.

      Having the drone operator register with a smart phone will tell where the operator is, but not where the drone is. Having a transponder on the drone won’t help with see and avoid (standard operating rules for pilots in all airspace). The average GA aircraft doesn’t have a “transponder detector”, and asking them to add them to their aircraft is not going to happen, the drones have to avoid the other aircraft. Right of way rules need to be written and the community needs the education.

      What about privacy, being a non-issue? People in their backyard should expect they won’t be filmed by strangers flying drones overhead. They should also expect those drones won’t land on them when walking down the sidewalk. Maintenance will be very important when drones are flown in public spaces.

      • Steve Mann

        “How about that 20 car pile up on the I-5 in Los Angeles. The one where 6 drones were flying over it trying to capture the carnage for the local media. ”

        Cite, please. Link to a news report? Any way to verify the story?

    • Alex
      I flew a counter drug mission which I repeatedly flew to 200 AGL all over in order to positively identify illegal grow sites. What if those protecting the illegal grow could deploy multiple mini drones loaded with steel pellets to crash into my turbine intakes. That would disable the engine within a matter of seconds. If the crash was survived, I might then be thrown into a gun fight without a gun. My vote would be to restrict flying drones to recreational air parks only.

    • Steve Mann

      Cite, please. Link to a news report? Any way to verify the story?
      Do you *really* think a commercial pilot is going to risk his license and career doing something this incredibly childish?

  5. Max Trescott

    Same comment I was going to make. Class G is regulated! Pilots have specific requirements they must follow for entering Class G airspace, and I have read summaries of actions the FAA has taken against pilots in Class G who failed to follow those rules. Pilots are allowed to fly in Class G–so it’s not wide, open space that drones can fly in with impunity. I’m both a pilot and a hobbyist drone owner, so I have a strong interest in keeping these different types of aircraft from crashing into each other.

  6. Class G airspace is not “unregulated”, it’s “uncontrolled”. ATC has neither the authority nor the responsibility to control air traffic in Class G but the regulations, including the critical “see and avoid” rule, still apply. I don’t see an easy way for drones to comply with that rule if they’re out of sight so maintaining separation is key.