In business, the easiest decision when faced with a multifaceted problem is no decision at all. Unfortunately, it is often the worst decision. The world marches on, not caring about your inability to decide. You are at the winds of fate rather than taking an active hand in shaping your destiny.
I think this is the case with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and small, unmanned aerial systems (sUAS). Hiding behind a front of “air safety” and “complex problem”, the FAA has chosen to make no decision at all. Meanwhile, most of the rest of the world is well into the second generation of integrating sUAS into the commerce infrastructure.
While the FAA says that it is minding safety and will not make a decision until all the i’s are dotted and the t’s crossed, this cannot actually be the true reason for a lack of rules. Within the existing framework of admittedly very fuzzy FAA rules, it is perfectly legal for the farmer’s daughter of age 10 to fly a 40 pound drone over the 1,000 acre farm, collecting as much data along the way as she desires. It is her hobby. However, the FAA says that it is illegal for the farmer herself to fly this same sUAS if the purpose is collecting data to improve yields or any operation that is revenue generating (yet another really fuzzy boundary). Let’s see now; if I am a non-professional doing this simply as a hobby, it is perfectly safe. If I am a professional who has devoted business investment into the effort, it is inherently dangerous. Of course this is an absurdly ridiculous situation and everyone involved in drones is quite aware of the fact that the lack of realistic flying rules for drones is as issue of bureaucratic morass rather than safety. My own opinion is that no one at FAA wants to be the person who signed a paper that might somehow surface in an accident investigation. And, yes indeed, there are and will be many, many sUAS accidents!
I posit that this lack of simple and sane rules from the FAA is actually endangering the airspace. The genie is out of the bottle; on any given day, thousands of sUAS take to the air in the United States in a vacuum of simple safety guidelines. It is a lawless environment with participants ranging from those very aware of safety rules (think surveyors doing volumetric data collection over coal mines in West Virginia) to kids flying high end multirotors over crowded sidewalks (oddly, one can make a pretty sound argument that the surveyor is the person on the wrong side of the law!).
The recent FAA exemption for six companies doing aerial videography gives us a preview of what may be coming. Rather than a very simple set of rules focused on safety, the operating regulations for these guys reads like the ground prep for a moon shot. Now admittedly, the folks applying for the waivers threw everything including the kitchen sink into their request for waiver but the FAA, rather than crossing off many of the proposed items for the sake of simplification, said instead “this looks sort of good but we need to add this big list of additional requirements…..”
What we need are some very simple rules that will set the guidelines for folks who are going to fly drones, regardless of the regulatory environment. Why not ask them to abide by some very straightforward guidance that will help ensure the safety of persons on the ground. After all, the real safety threat from sUAS flying close to the ground (say 130 meters and below) is the drone falling from the sky and hitting someone on the head. This is the approach that has been taken by many leading aviation nations such as Canada and the United Kingdom. No onerous, irrelevant requirements for manned aircraft private pilots licensure and FAA airframe certification but simple rules that aim at keeping altitudes such that threats to manned aircraft are avoided and a big focus on protection of persons who might be below the aircraft.
Oh well, I think I wish for too much. In our current political environment, common sense is in very short supply!