Hey, FAA, Get Out of the Way … Let the Drones Fly

1958 was a very important year in U.S. aviation, when today’s FAA really took form, as the sole federal authority regulating U.S. civil aviation. That was 56 years ago. Now, as happens too often, this ‘agency’ has evolved into an over-matured bureaucracy: a large, bloated organizational structure, burdened with internal fiefdoms, onerous and arbitrary rule enforcement, and an enormous aversion to individual accountability. On top of that, since most of FAA’s real work was accomplished in the 1960’s, and thus the agency has matured onward for two more generations since, there are literally thousands of FAA cubicle-occupants who scramble each year to find new projects to stay busy and on track building their retirement pensions.

drone, 4-rotor (image- Don McCullough, Flickr)

A typical lightweight drone used as a camera platform. Easily carried with one hand.

One of those new projects is ‘drones’. Just to be clear, though, understand that there are two key classes of drones: those hand-held versions that weigh in at roughly ten pounds or less, versus those that weigh more and are essentially real aircraft but without onboard pilots. This appeal to FAA is about the first group: those lightweight drone systems that offer extraordinary potential for low-altitude, low-impact aerial photography, to aid journalism and other important social services.

19810609.. FAA AC91-57, Model Aircraft Operating Standards, 400ft guideline

FAA’s 1981 Advisory Circular on model aircraft.

There are so many beneficial uses of drones, yet FAA has heavy-handedly stepped forward to grab control of all drone uses. This is weird because FAA set up policies to manage small drones way back in 1981. Thus, for more than thirty years, FAA has accepted small drones as just a form of hobby aviation that, if kept below 400 feet and away from larger aircraft, was not a safety threat and could be properly self-regulated by radio-control (RC) hobbyists. In just the past two years, though, FAA has issued dozens of ‘cease and desist’ letters and threatened $10,000 fines against hobbyists who shoot aerial photos or aid searches. And their primary justification: FAA asserts a burning need to ‘control’ the commercial (as in, ‘for-hire’) use of drones. Of course, as always, FAA says the words ‘aviation safety’ over and over again while over-asserting their authority, but, in the full analysis, this is simply about two FAA objectives: first, FAA making work to sustain the overburden of FAA employees ‘needed’ to allegedly ‘manage’ a nascent industry that is arguably entirely outside of FAA’s safety purview; and, second, FAA protecting older aviation commercial activities, such as full-scale, fuel-intensive helicopter aerial tourism and aerial photography services.

So, here’s a quick example.

A small company based in Dallas, HawkeyeMedia.com, accumulated the expertise and  some specialized gear (a small 6-rotor drone, and an SLR camera), then shot an award-winning video highlighting a mountain bike ride through a scenic natural area in arid west Texas. ‘Palo Duro Ride’ was edited down to just two minutes, filled with stunning aerial photography, and paired with some nice music. Beautifully done, and worth watching. (see also the video about how ‘Palo Duro Ride’ was created)

But, the video is just a hint of the potential. Just as beautifully, this photography did not require the loud intrusion of helicopters. Nor did it involve clouds of dust stirred up by massive helicopter rotor wash. Nor were any lives placed at risk flying low to the ground to capture the images. The energy consumed to produce this video: virtually none (far better than if done by full-sized, manned aircraft). The noise intrusion on wildlife and those who love the silence of grand natural areas: wonderfully, again, the impact approaches zero.

And here is another huge improvement brought by drones: the video itself now offers anyone and everyone a chance to experience Palo Duro up close, dramatically, while imposing absolutely zero impact on others who savor the opportunity to hike, run or ride in this place — today, tomorrow, and forever. Contrast that with the tens of thousands at Grand Canyon who are awed each day by the views and the grandeur and the natural quiet, then have the experience marred hearing yet one more noisy helicopter zipping nearby to serve a tiny handful of air tourists. Today, tomorrow, and forever — or at least until the National Park Service and FAA get their act together and put an end to the noise impactful air tourism at places like Grand Canyon.

Consider, too, that there are some aerial photographic images that cannot be safely shot using a manned helicopter, yet can be easily and safely obtained via small drones. Check out this short video tour of the campus at Baylor University, and pay particular attention to the low-altitude fly-overs. Some incredible close images, shot between the trees, gliding over the tops of spires.

The bottom line:

Drones can be an exceptional improvement upon current aviation technologies. FAA needs to get out of the way and quit pretending to manage model airplane uses in the bottom few hundred feet of air, far below the safe airspace needed by larger, manned aircraft. Let the drones fly. And, let other federal agencies (NOT FAA!) properly manage the aspects of drones that are not part of FAA’s aviation-safety authority: especially, commercial applications, civil liberties invasions, and personal privacy intrusions. These aspects can and will be managed, but they are clearly far beyond FAA’s ability and track record.