FAA’s Drone Registry is Clearly Excessive … Yet Ineffective and Serves No Valid Purpose

Heritage Foundation has posted an excellent article that gets past the spin/hype/distortion that FAA has deployed in their recently imposed ‘Drone Registry’. A strong case exists to show that FAA’s real intent is simply to ‘look busy’, as they very publicly impose regulations upon flying toys made of foam and typically weighing far less than your average duck. Notably, too, during the six decades before the registry was started in December, FAA had consciously chosen to let model aircraft operators ‘self-regulate’ … even with much heavier and far more dangerous powered model aircraft (in fact, there was even a history of model airplane accidents with injuries and even fatalities).

The article, Purposeless Regulation: The FAA Drone Registry, was written by Jason Snead and John-Michael Seibler. Here is a copy:

This pop-out view is scrollable, and the PDF copy may be downloaded.

Due to its clear arbitrariness, this major FAA policy shift is at the core of a lawsuit, Taylor v. FAA, filed on 12/24/2015. Mr. Taylor argues that FAA violated Congress’ UAS guidance in the last FAA Authorization … the same horrible legislation which FAA used to justify NextGen impacts without environmental review (see the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, 2/14/2012).


See also:

Another Example of FAA Misdirecting Its Abundant Resources

(click on image to view original article at AOPA.org)

(click on image to view original article at AOPA.org)

In early 2012, within the same congressional legislation that enabled FAA to impose impactful NextGen routes without meaningful environmental review, FAA was directed to accelerate ‘integration of unmanned aerial vehicles’ into the National Airspace System. Deadlines were set, and FAA has consistently failed these deadlines, but FAA did eventually get around to creating some rules. FAA also created an exemption process, enabling so-called ‘commercial operators’ to proceed without compliance to the new rules.

FAA has since granted more than a thousand exemptions (searchable list of 1,451 exemption entries, with links to PDF copies). Each exemption has required dozens of hours of work on both ends of the process: the applicant (or their well-paid attorney) has to create typically 20-50 pages of documentation, and FAA lawyers and others then spend dozens of hours reviewing the application and drafting a ‘decision’ filled with boilerplate that typically runs 8-10 pages long. Generally, the exemptions require flight no higher than 400-feet above ground level, and the operator must have earned a costly FAA pilot certification. In many cases, FAA has also submitted the exemption applications for publication in the Federal Register, in accordance with the NPRM rulemaking process.

One of the latest FAA exemption approvals goes to Peter Sachs, a Connecticut attorney developing a specialty in unmanned flight. Here, he was granted approval to fly a paper airplane with a tiny propeller … so long as he uses an FAA-licensed pilot to perform the flight and flies low to the ground. Just a paper airplane, which clearly could have no significant impact on any real aircraft.

Perhaps a more intelligent FAA rule (and one that would provide lots of relief from aviation noise) would be to mandate all manned aircraft minimize flight time below say 2,500-feet above ground level (AGL), and do all level cruising flights at no less than 2,500-feet AGL.

For the record, FAA’s current helicopter rules essentially allow helicopter pilots to cruise right at ground level, and fixed-wing planes are legal at just 500-feet above ‘uncongested’ terrain and 1,000-feet above ‘congested terrain’ (whatever those terms mean). Furthermore, the rules promulgated by FAA at FAR 91.119 are loaded with loopholes that render them entirely unenforceable; for example, ANY pilot can justify low flying, simply by claiming he or she needed to be at that altitude to transition to or from their cruising altitude.

It seems rather incredible that this much busywork should go into creating rules, yet the rules are so arbitrary that the agency quickly grants rule exemptions to well over a thousand applicants. And all of this fuss over objects (radio-control models, and even paper airplanes now!) that just four years ago were considered ‘recreational’. One has to question just how intelligent a rule is, when thousands of exemptions are promptly issued. Imagine if our state DMV’s arbitrarily issued 30mph maximum speed limits for our cars, then granted tens of thousands of waivers, each accompanied with a tiny decal to go onto our cars. Yes, it would be absurd and expensive, but it sure would keep lots of state DMV employees busy.

The same appears to be the case at FAA. Wouldn’t it be nice if FAA redirected their personnel resources, aiming them instead at…

  • … resolving noise issues,
  • … reducing GA accident rates,
  • … improving helicopter fuel tank ruptures (and other serious airworthiness problems), and
  • … correcting the employee fatigue issues that continue to haunt pilots and controllers?

FAA could do so much more, if it chose to serve the People, not just the industry players.

Dodging Accountability: those ‘Un-Readable’ registration markings on GA aircraft

While there are two ‘A’s’ in ‘FAA’, we can all rest assured that neither ‘A’ stands for ‘ACCOUNTABILITY’. This we know from the news which, on a nearly daily basis, shows a corrupt and scandal-riddled work culture, where officials are ever careful to not let their personal name be attached to their professional actions and inactions. The recent coverage of the ATC recruitment scandal is one example; FAA’s decades-old habit of excessively redacting names of all FAA officials in FOIA responses is another example; and a third example is illuminated in the excellent series of articles from last summer, by Mario Diaz at PIX11.

FAA’s culture of unaccountability goes further. It not only protects those employed by the agency, but it also insulates rogue pilots and others whom the agency is supposed to be regulating, to protect them from accountability, too. Thus, incidents like the 2012 helicopter harassment against an advocate for regulation of skydiving noise in Longmont, CO are effectively enabled by a dysfunctional FAA. Essentially, a rogue pilot can do whatever he wants, and he’ll get away with it so long as he can rely of FAA to not enforce.

Required Aircraft Registration Markings

One clear area of FAA failure has to do with the requirements to mark all aircraft with legible registration numbers. The two principal ways that accountability is dodged with these GA aircraft markings are:

  1. FAA’s rules allow for incredibly tiny letters; and
  2. Even when an aircraft is identified, FAA is habitually lax about enforcement against aviators (click here for the FreeRangeLongmont version of the 2012 harassment incident… and be sure to click through to see the supporting documentation!)

We are all quite familiar with the license plates placed on the rear (and in many states on the front, too) of all registered trucks and automobiles. The purpose is to ensure drivers are accountable for their driving behavior. Identifying marks, legible from a reasonable distance, were intended to enable citizens and/or law enforcement officials to establish the registered owner (and hopefully the actually driver) after an accident or after any illegal driving actions.20150804cpy.. CA license plate sample, 65mm font, 'OutaTime'

The standard in the U.S., adopted in 1956, calls for plates that are 6″ by 12″. Typically, these have letters that are 2.5-inches (65mm) tall. A 1960 engineering study by the University of Illinois recommended adoption of a numbering system and plate design “…composed of combinations of characters which can be perceived quickly and accurately, are legible at a distance of approximately 125 feet (38 m) under daylight conditions, and are readily adapted to filing and administrative procedures.” The study also concluded that plates need to be readable from at least 125-feet away, and that a 14″ plate width (not just 12″ wide)would improve legibility, by ensuring letters are not excessively thin or mashed together.

The same logic is also supposed to apply to aircraft. However, states, local jurisdictions and Courts all defer to FAA as the final authority in charge of aviation safety. As such, it fell upon FAA to establish regulations for the proper marking of aircraft, to ensure they are identifiable, and to ensure the operators are accountable.

So, what did FAA do? They crafted a set of rules that virtually guarantee that any unsafe pilot or excessively noisy aircraft will be unidentifiable. And, even when they are identified, FAA tends not to enforce the rules, anyway.

The bulk of ‘General Aviation’ includes personal aircraft, many of which are kit-built by the owner/pilot. The vast majority of all small GA aircraft require 2″ tall registration letters; only a small number of GA require larger letters, either 3″ or 12″ tall. Think about that. Given that highway engineers opted for 2.5″ tall letters to be properly legible at 125-feet on our roadways, logically the minimum height to read the registration number of an aircraft at least 1,000-feet above the ground should be eight-times 2.5″, thus 20″ tall. Yet, the only small aircraft required to be marked with the full 12″ letters are those factory-built fixed-wing types after 1982 (and rotorcraft after 1983), and those kit-built models that cruise at speeds in excess of 180 knots. According to FAA’s rules, somebody flying an early 1970’s Learjet or Citationjet is legal, so long as they show 2″ tall letters on the sides of their engines. So, is it any wonder that drug-runners have become partial to using older small airplanes to move their product around?

An Example of Non-Enforcement

Here’s an example: a 1984 Cessna Turbo Stationair said to be based in Ohio, for which a custom paint-job was done. Nice looking plane, and plenty of power to get to remote lakes when outfitted in floats. But, take a look at the registration numbers. A licensed professional aircraft painter did this job, then advertised their good craftsmanship online, and the FAA officials simply looked the other way. The same FAA that jumps on hobbyists who use 6-pound quadcopters flown maybe 100- or 200-feet above the ground to shoot real estate aerial photos nowhere near any airports, and with zero risk of impacting regular aviation … that same FAA pays no mind to the fact that FAA-licensed pilots and the FAA-certified professionals who service their FAA-registered aircraft are routinely ignoring numerous FAA’s regulations, such as the need to have legible letters with a contrasting background.20150803scp.. C206 with camouflaged aircraft numbersN235HM earlier pic from web, marked SEP-2006

And to the right is an earlier photo, prior to the custom paint-job. Both paint jobs do a wonderful job of camouflaging the aircraft callsign. And had this aircraft been built just two years earlier, in 1982, that camouflage would surround letters only 2-inches tall!

For the record, FAA’s regulations on marking aircraft are contained at Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) at Chapter I, Subchapter C, Part 45, Subpart C. The specific language in 14 CFR at Section 45.21(c) includes: “…Aircraft nationality and registration marks must … have no ornamentation, … contrast in color with the background, … and be legible.” So, if this floatplane were to buzz a group of people on the water – even if by accident – chances are that, despite FAA’s regulations, the impacted people would not be able to identify the aircraft or pilot. In the best-case scenario, a decent pilot would never learn of his carelessness, would fail to sharpen his skills, and would continue a bad and unsafe habit. In the worst-case scenario, a rogue pilot would ‘get away with it’ – and feel further empowered – all the more likely to repeat use of his aircraft to endanger and harass people.

It’s Even Worse for Helicopters

Read this quote carefully, as this is FAA’s binding regulation for rotorcraft markings, copied from 14 CFR 45.29(b)(3): “(the markings) …must be at least 12 inches high, except that rotorcraft displaying before April 18, 1983, marks required by § 45.29(b)(3) in effect on April 17, 1983, and rotorcraft manufactured on or after April 18, 1983, but before December 31, 1983, may display those marks until the aircraft is repainted or the marks are repainted, restored, or changed.” The underline is added to emphasize, in essence, for all helicopters built prior to 1984, the owner must increase the numbers from 2″ tall to 12″ tall ONLY IF the owner chooses to ‘repaint, restore or change’ the numbers. It is as if regulators (and Congress?) wanted to carefully avoid upsetting operators in the pipeline, soon to take delivery of their new helicopter (why should they be burdened with a rule that makes their helicopter potentially identifiable?). Absurd, and yet so typical of the ambiguous mish-mash built into so many FAA regulations.

 

Rocky Mountain Loud: Skydiving Noise Impacts near Longmont, Colorado

20150421cpy.. Flatirons Boulder picThe Front Range west of Denver offers spectacular vistas, like the Flatirons shown above, just south of Boulder. Ample sunshine makes it a natural for people to be outside. Many are drawn here for the opportunity to have an active and outdoor lifestyle. But, due to lack of effective FAA regulation, what might have been John Denver’s ‘Rocky Mountain High‘ has instead become a noise nightmare reminiscent of Jack Nicholson in ‘The Shining’. Repetitive noise, just like intense silence, drives people crazy.

Northeast of Boulder an outfit called ‘Mile-Hi Skydiving’ has been impacting quality of life around Longmont since the mid-1990’s. It is a classic example of the skydiving impacts that FAA refuses to address, just like happens in hundreds of rural areas around the country. Typically, these outfits set up business just outside large urban centers. In Portland, OR, for example, a skydive company intensively advertises on busses and bus shelters to draw customers out to Molalla. A few city-dwellers then drive out to the country and pay for a cheap thrill ride, oblivious to the fact they are destroying the country lifestyle below. The flights are under the south arrival corridor into [KPDX], so way back in 1991, FAA officials coordinated with the operator to do their climbs about 8-miles to the northeast of their airport [OL05]. Most people in that area are unaware of why they are subjected to so much airplane noise, particularly intense on weekends and nice summer days.

The Skydiving Business Model

'Here's Johnny!' J.Nicholson pic in The Shining

“Here’s Johnny!”

Jack would understand: this is a business, aimed at making a profit. Mile-Hi flies large and noisy aircraft up and down, up and down, all day long. To maximize profits, they select aircraft for maximum climb rate. If a particular engine or propeller design/setting increases the climb rate, they use it, with zero regard for the noise level. If a noisier climb takes only 12-minutes but a quieter climb takes 15-minutes, most skydiving outfits will opt for the noisier climb to save 3 minutes (and thus add a few more flights per day). Commonly, with skydive operations, they hire pilots on the cheap, which is easy to do since FAA and the industry have worked together for decades to ensure there is a large pool of eager, low-hour pilots. They need to build up hours before airlines will hire them. So, when a company like Mile-Hi offers a $199 cash price for tandem jumps (the kind where you are strapped to a so-called ‘instructor’ for your one-time lesson thrill-ride), their profit margin is enormous. Which makes it all the more puzzling why local airports often charge very little (or even nothing) to set up at fields like Vance Brand Airport [KLMO], in Longmont. (see the pink circle below)20150424cpy.. VFR chart vicinity [KLMO]

As a business, they take a fee from each skydiver, to add to their company profit. But that is not the only ‘taking’. They also take peace and quiet from thousands of local residents who must endure the low-frequency reverberating drone that destroys their summer days. Worse yet, the impacts also happen for hours and even full days in the other seasons, for year-round operators like Mile-Hi. The local residents lose quality of life; they get no compensation for their loss. They can complain to FAA, who will routinely tell them to take it up with the business or airport. They can complain to the business or airport, who will tell them the program is ‘FAA compliant’ and refer them back to the FAA with their complaint. The citizens face a black hole where neither operators nor FAA officials are held accountable; thus, real citizens effectively have no rights to resolve an adverse impact that FAA condones.

The Civil Action

20150421scp.. portion of homepage, citizensforquietskies.org

(click on image to view the Citizens for Quiet Skies website homepage)

The matter has irritated local residents so much that they filed a lawsuit. A group called Citizens for Quiet Skies gradually formed, and in late 2013 the group and seven individuals filed a lawsuit (Case# 2013CV031563) at the U.S. District Court in Boulder, CO. A 5-day trial was held last week. District Court Judge Judith LaBuda plans to do a site visit on May 1st, before issuing her ruling.

The group raised funds to cover their legal expenses, and some incurred personal debt. Of course, people should not have to take on personal debt to right a wrong, and they would not have to if FAA would properly apply environmental considerations to regulate operations like Mile-Hi Skydiving. Nor should people have to endure harassment by aviation companies or even by aviators in flight. In May 2012, Mile-Hi sent Kimberly Gibbs a letter, with a “Have a Great Summer!” poster, as well as a bumper sticker that read ‘I love airplane noise!’. Weeks later, there was the Memorial Day family gathering in the backyard, when a helicopter suddenly appeared over the treetops and hovered at less than 200-feet altitude. This incident is a blatantly serious case of aviation harassment, the sort of thing FAA would aggressively act on, if they were not so in bed with the industry they fail to regulate.

Good people know right from wrong. Better people refuse to cower to bullies. The best people fight back, to not only take care of their own bad situation, but even more to protect others from future repeats of the same injustices. As Ms. Gibbs puts it, “Sometimes you have to stand up and push the bully back into the lockers.”


We should all be able to relax in our homes. With summer coming, we are entering the peak season for aviation impacts by parachute operations. If you are impacted at your residence, please contact the aiREFORM.com administrator (ReformFAAnow at Gmail dot com) to help us compile more data documenting the extent of this U.S. aviation problem.

Big Week in Santa Monica

Lots is happening in the next few days. A meeting of the Santa Monica Airport Commission (SMAC) on Monday, then a public Rally and a session of the Santa Monica City Council on Tuesday.20150322.. [KSMO] busy week calendar 1-2-3

A copy of the 36-page Staff Report is viewable in the scrollable window below. Check back to this Post, as links for other resources will be added.


Links:
  • City Council HomepageThe Santa Monica City Council regularly meets at 5:30 p.m. on the 2nd and 4th Tuesday of every month in Council Chambers, located at City Hall, 1685 Main Street, Santa Monica. The City Council may hold additional special meetings, as needed.
  • July 1, 2015: Measure LC beginslatest Post by Airport2Park, a local nonprofit formed to support and promote the creation of a great park on the land that is currently Santa Monica Airport.
  • Martin Rubin’s Statement to the Santa Monica City CouncilDelivered on 3/23/2015, in preparation for the scheduled 3/24/2015 City Council meeting. Includes numerous links to supporting documents.

FAA Still Failing on Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS)

“What are they smoking at the FAA???
“When is the FAA (and their indifferent parent, the DOT) going to fire their current crop of idiot regs-makers, and replace them with sober, competent, responsible adults?”

The above are valid questions, raised by a commenter in an online article at AW&ST’s AviationDaily, FAA Urged To Act Fast On Final Small-UAS Rule. The article and the comments are well worth reading.

FAA is way behind schedule, but they are also failing to address the real issues. In fact, for the smaller and wildly popular hobby drones, the key issue is less about safety (since even small manned aircraft should not be flying so low to the ground), but more about the invasion of personal privacy. FAA is proceeding through a formal rulemaking process (NPRM) right now, and hearing these concerns from citizens. Here is a portion of a citizen comment that focuses on personal privacy and the use of drones to monitor and arrest people, as submitted to the NPRM (by Christopher Booth, in Concord, NH):

“Addressing the issue of privacy is paramount. You can operate a UAV for private use, but can not obtain imagery which would violate any person’s expectation of privacy, and no imagery or information may be obtained for public use without regard for the requirement that a warrant must be obtained before such collection if it is going to be admissible in any court proceeding or may be used for the purpose of obtaining the arrest of any person. In other words you can not randomly fly a UAV over a city looking for someone to arrest, or to observe whether anyone is obeying or disobeying any law. You have to get a warrant for that, and it has to have probable cause that the person should be arrested, and must specify where you can look for them and who you are looking for to obtain that warrant – from a judge in open court, in the presence of a public defender arguing why the warrant should not be issued.”

Everyone would be better served if FAA simply punted. Perhaps FAA should relinquish regulatory authority for low altitude (?below 500-feet AGL and clear of all actual airport traffic patterns?) and light-weight (?under ten pounds?) drone uses?

Also, FAA could reduce noise impacts by helicopters AND increase safety margins, if they would simultaneously tighten the FAR 91.119 ‘Minimum Safe Altitude’ flight restrictions. It would be a ‘win-win’ if FAA would require that all manned aircraft (fixed wing and helicopters) cruise at altitudes at least 2,000-feet AGL, and transition to/from these cruise altitudes within reasonable short distances of takeoff/landing locations. Skies would be quieter AND safer.


See also:

ANALYSIS: 2015-01-16.. Forced Landing of an Air Tour Flight Near Halawa Falls, Molokai

A Cessna Skyhawk flying an apparent air tour lost engine power and crashed in rough forested terrain, while touring near Halawa Falls in the northeast part of Molokai. The tour passengers were a Japanese couple and their daughter. News reports indicate that the pilot and two passengers had minor injuries, but the mother was hospitalized with serious injuries.

20070819scp.. C172 forced landing field on Lanai, pilot pic (M.Richards)

The pilot, happy for his good luck. (click on image to view article/source)

The pilot, 35-yr-old Michael Richards, had previous experience with forced landings while flying this same aircraft type. On August 16, 2007, he was doing an instructional flight with N5207D, a C172, when he lost engine power; all three survived (the instructor, his student, and an observer/student). Then, on June 24, 2014, Mr. Richards and a student lost power at 2,000-feet and made a forced landing with N66540, ending up in a plowed pineapple field, near the Waipio Costco.

The most recent forced landing was with N5660E, a C172 registered with an operator named Hawaiian Night Lights LLC.

20070819scp.. C172 forced landing field on Lanai (M.Richards)

(click on image to read article about another forced landing, involving the same pilot, in 2007)

Is the Safety Oversight Missing?

Interestingly, neither the 2007 nor the 2014 forced landings are included within the NTSB aviation accident database. They clearly should have been. On the same day as the 2007 Hawaiian incident, another student pilot had a hard landing at an airport in Keystone Height, FL; that incident, far less significant (and far more common) than an in-flight engine failure, was investigated and added to the NTSB database [LAX07CA256]. And, on the day before the 2014 Hawaiian incident, another C172, in Miami, FL, had a hard landing when the pilot’s seat slid during touch-and-go pattern practice. It was written up at NTSB [ERA14CA331].

So, it will not be a surprise if neither NTSB nor FAA produces an investigation and report for the latest incident. They should. These are commercial activities. Just like the ‘instructional flights’ sold to tourists on ultralights are ‘commercial’ and generally overlooked by FAA. In fact, two died ten months ago in Kauai, the latest in a long history where both pilots and paying passengers have died in commercial flight accidents.

An agency that takes civil action against those who use low-altitude drones to capture real estate or news photos, should be far more concerned with ensuring safety in commercial air tourism. Get the data on these incidents, share it widely, and clean up Hawaiian air tourism before the next fatality happens.


See also:

EPIC.org: Challenging FAA’s Tone-Deafness on UAS ‘Privacy’

On December 2nd, Gizmodo.com posted an article, Why the FAA Isn’t Worried About Drones Invading Your Privacy Right Now. This article was triggered by a post the day before at EPIC.org, FAA Grounds Drone Privacy Safeguards. Here’s the background…

EPIC.org is the Electronic Privacy Information Center, an independent non-profit research center based in Washington, DC. According to their website ‘about EPIC page’, EPIC is all about fundamental democratic values. EPIC works to protect privacy, freedom of expression, and to promote the Public Voice in decisions concerning the future of the Internet. EPIC maintains two of the most popular privacy web sites in the world – epic.org and privacy.org.

Aviation activities are rapidly transitioning from manned vehicles (fixed-wing and helicopters) to unmanned aircraft systems (aka UAS, or ‘drones’). This transition can provide great benefits, such as reduced energy use and reduced air and noise pollution. But, this transition also has the potential to lead us to a new world where the skies become crowded with silent drones monitoring all our activities, and even being used to ‘take out’ arbitrarily defined threats. EPIC.org is one of the leading NGO’s working to ensure that the needs of the larger Public are being properly considered, during the development of these new technologies and regulations.

In early 2012, the U.S. Congress passed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (FMRA). This legislation was a big package, covering airport projects, expansion of NextGen technologies, etc. It also directed FAA to “develop a comprehensive plan to safely accelerate the integration of civil unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system,” providing for this integration “as soon as practicable, but not later than September 30, 2015.”

In the weeks following President Obama’s signing of FMRA, a petition was filed with FAA, asking the agency to “”conduct a notice and comment rulemaking on the impact of privacy and civil liberties related to the use of drones in the United States.” EPIC was joined by over 100 other organizations, experts, and members of the public in presenting the petition.

FAA already had a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in the works, and it was published in the Federal Register on March 9, 2012. Given the short notice, it was reasonable that FAA did not include the privacy issues in this NPRM. Instead, FAA added a solicitation for privacy-issue comments to a later NPRM, published in February 2013. Consequently, the entire issue of drone privacy impacts has been inadequately addressed by FAA. So, a full 31-months after the February 2012 petition, FAA finally got around to sending a weak ‘reply’ letter to EPIC.org.

How can we do Better?

All of this suggests we would be far better served, if FAA would relinquish regulatory authority over the low-altitude airspace. A more flexible – and more responsive – authority should be handling low-altitude drone regulations … perhaps even local or state officials. And, their regulations should be required to conform with reasonable (and legislated) privacy protections.


Here is a chronology with links to the documents:

2/24/12 EPIC.org’s Petition, filed with FAA
 3/8/12 FAA’s NPRM, requesting comments for the UAS Test Sites
5/8/12 EPIC.org comments, filed with FAA’s NPRM
 2/22/13  FAA’s NPRM, presenting the process by which FAA will select UAS Test Sites, and also soliciting comments about UAS Test Site privacy concerns
 4/23/13  EPIC.org comments submitted to NPRM
 11/14/13  FAA’s final draft of Privacy Requirements for UAS Test Site Program
 11/26/14  FAA’s letter to EPIC.org, responding to the Petition (31-months later! … and signed by Lirio Liu, recently promoted to Director, Office of Rulemaking)

See also:

It’s Black Friday … and Tens of Thousands of RC Aircraft Likely will be Purchased

Which means a lot more work for the nearly 45,000 employees at the FAA.

Why? Because FAA is way behind in developing the drone regulations Congress has mandated, and this failure is putting the U.S. way behind other countries where drones use far less fuel and create far less noise to get certain jobs done. Also, because FAA liberally defines the ‘National Airspace System’ to include not just at legitimate aviation locations such as places where quiet drones could monitor rush-hour traffic at 500- to 1,000-feet altitude (instead of those noisy traffic watch helicopters and planes), but also at absurd places far below real aircraft, like:

  • the 400-foot altitude that the neighbor kid carefully stays within while flying his radio-controlled model airplane … all with clear approval of FAA, up until a couple months ago;
  • the 100-feet of airspace above your house, which you might enjoy using with an aerial camera drone, to capture nice aerial photos of your garden or home project;
  • or even (arguably) the classroom air between your son and his target when he decides to launch a spitwad (which NTSB recently decided can be treated as an ‘aircraft’, and is thus subject to FAA regulations).

20141125.. RadioShack ad, RC quadcopter and heloHere’s the Radio Shack ad for today’s big sale. The quadcopter in the upper-right corner, with the glow-green rotors, costs only $60 and is for kids 12 and older.

The red helicopter in the upper left costs only $15, and claims to be for kids 8 and older! Which makes one wonder: will FAA be sending inspectors to elementary school auditoriums to discuss with third-graders, ‘How Kids can Help to Keep the National Airspace System Safe’?

FAA’s Regulatory Excess & Delays are Hampering the U.S. Drone Industry

A few years ago, FAA grabbed control of the U.S. drone industry, primarily as a project to apply excess employee resources. FAA has since banned most drone uses in the U.S., and the nascent industry is foundering while FAA falls behind in the development of industry rules. U.S. operators have been driven underground; their ability to locate funding or procure insurance is impacted, and potential customers are deterred by FAA’s daunting (though arbitrary) rules.

Meanwhile, a commercial-drone boom is happening outside the U.S., where national policies are much more accommodating. Take Germany, for example. One of the largest players is Service-drone.de GmbH, in Berlin. The company has sold more than 400 drone systems and has more than twenty employees. Their website offers some excellent examples of efficient drone applications such as photogrammetric mapping and powerline construction and maintenance. Here are two embedded videos showing use of an octocopter:

Here is a short excerpt, from the start of Jack Nicas’ Wall Street Journal article:

In four years, Service-drone.de GmbH has emerged as a promising player here in the rapidly expanding commercial-drone industry. The 20-employee startup has sold more than 400 unmanned aircraft to private-sector companies and currently is pitching its fourth-generation device.
Over the same period, Seattle-based Applewhite Aero has struggled to get permission from the Federal Aviation Administration just to fly its drones, which are designed for crop monitoring. The company, founded the same year as Service-drone, has test-flown only one of its four aircraft, and is now moving some operations to Canada, where getting flight clearance is easier.
“We had to petition the FAA to not carry the aircraft manual onboard,” said Applewhite founder Paul Applewhite. “I mean, who’s supposed to read it?” Mr. Applewhite, like many of his U.S. peers, fears the drone industry “is moving past the U.S., and we’re just getting left behind.”

As presented in the article, FAA says its drone policy “… reflects concern for the safety of people in the air and on the ground. It rejected any comparison to foreign regulators, saying the U.S. has far more low-flying private planes that are at most risk from drones….”

This is ridiculous. If FAA really cared about safety, they would be accelerating deployment of drones to eliminate unsafe helicopter uses, such as pipeline surveys. Plus, the altitudes needed for drones are safely underneath the altitudes used by regular aircraft. Frankly, the only possible traffic for these drones would be low-flying helicopters, which are flying unsafely if they are in fact cruising within a few hundred feet of the ground. FAA could regulate these helicopters — and needs to, which would also reduce noise impacts (e.g., see the helicopter problems on Long Island, NY or near Palos Verdes, CA).

So, in the larger analysis, FAA is continuing to refuse to properly regulate helicopters, and FAA is impeding drone development, all of which sustains the status quo for aviation today in the U.S.

As one drone retailer in Liberty, TX said: “It’ll reach a point of no return where American companies won’t ever be able to catch up. The U.S. is definitely falling behind.”