Michigan Company Developing Crash-Avoidance System

One of the primary goals of the FAA’s roadmap for drone integration is to develop an effective crash-avoidance system, or systems. A company in Michigan, called SkySpecs, has been working on a solution:

For the past five years, the SkySpecs team has been working on an object detection and avoidance system for aerial drones that could help even amateur pilots prevent dangerous collisions. Last week the company was accepted into the startup incubator R/GA Accelerator to help it get its first product, Guardian Crash Avoidance, to market.

The SkySpecs team, who met at the University of Michigan in 2009, started out by building their own drones for the International Aerial Robotics Competition competition. “I thought I wanted to do manned aircraft,” says Ellis, who was an aerospace engineering major. “But it was a time that drones were becoming popular and it seemed like a good opportunity.”

The problems of drone integration are going to be solved by entrepreneurs like these young people, not by bureaucrats.

Hogan Lovells Launches UAS Group

Global law firm Hogan Lovells has announced the formation of its UAS group.

“Companies around the world are considering, with great interest, the numerous possibilities that unmanned aircraft systems create,” said Hogan Lovells UAS Group chair E. Tazewell “Ted” Ellett. “This sophisticated technology opens up many business opportunities for our clients. Our Aviation practice has been assisting UAS clients for years. Now, by creating this dedicated UAS Group comprised of firm lawyers who are specialists in the many disciplines and industries of interest to our UAS clients, we are able to provide comprehensive UAS-related legal services on a global scale.”

A link to their UAS practice page can be found here.

FAA Fails to Include Drones in NextGen Plans

Terrific:

WASHINGTON (AP) — Designers of the ambitious U.S. air traffic control system of the future neglected to take drones into account, raising questions about whether it can handle the escalating demand for the unmanned aircraft and predicted congestion in the sky.

“We didn’t understand the magnitude to which (drones) would be an oncoming tidal wave, something that must be dealt with, and quickly,” said Ed Bolton, the Federal Aviation Administration’s assistant administrator for NextGen, as the program is called.

I understand that the FAA is a government bureaucracy and all, but how could they have failed to see this coming? This is especially troubling, given the fact that it will be very difficult to “retrofit” the system:

The FAA has spent more than $5 billion on the complex program and is nearly finished installing hardware and software for several key systems. But the further it progresses, the more difficult it becomes to make changes.

The problem that regulators are just starting to realize has to do with incompatibility between large drones and the usual aircraft occupying Class A airspace. For example:

Planes at high altitudes are supposed follow designated highways in the sky to avoid collisions. A typical airliner on that highway might fly at over 500 mph, while a drone at the same altitude might fly at only 175 mph, he said. The more drones, the worse the traffic jam.

So, we take it there’s no passing lane?

A week of drone law blogging at the Washington Post!

Michael Berry and Nabiha Syed are guest-blogging at The Volokh Conspiracy this week in a series dedicated to the regulation of private drone use. Their first post, on “journo-drones,” is here. Today, they write about philosophical approaches to drone regulation:

As policymakers consider drone regulation – particularly with respect to privacy and safety – the possible fields of regulation fall into five principal realms: operators, flight, purpose, property and surreptitious use. Some of these categories face practical difficulties, while others present constitutional issues. Nevertheless, these five fields offer a framework to help make sense of the legislation and regulation emerging around the use of drones.

The authors intend to visit the history of the FAA’s piecemeal approach, tomorrow.

In the meantime, we would suggest that they consider the consumer product approach to sUAS regulations for one of their posts.

What’s the hold-up on drone regulations?

Forbes has a wide-ranging article on the FAA’s hold-up on drone regulations, and what it means for commercial innovation. It’s already familiar territory for those of us who follow the issue, but this passage regarding the FAA’s explanation jumped out at us:

So what’s the hold up? A spokesperson for the regulator told Fortune that the agency has made “significant progress toward that goal, even as it dealt with disruptions due to sequestration and a three-week government shutdown.” Then there are technical issues to work through: the spokesperson said, the agency is developing a mechanism through which manned and unmanned aircrafts can communicate to avoid collisions.

“This is an exciting new technology,” the FAA said in statement. “People want to see what it can do—and what they can do with it. Detect and Avoid and Command and Control are two key integration-related research areas that must be addressed before routine beyond-line-of sight operations will be authorized to fly.”

(emphasis added).

By emphasizing beyond-line-of sight operations, the FAA seems to tacitly admit that it has no answer for why it is holding up regulations for line-of-sight (LOS) operations. All that the agency has managed to do thus far is pick a fight over how narrowly it can define LOS. Meanwhile, it goes around playing whack-a-mole with operators who pose no real threat to public safety.

As one interviewee comments, the FAA needs to change to a risk-based approach. Give some leeway for the development of low-altitude operations that can be safely managed without posing a risk to air traffic while, at the same time, technology is being developed for the full integration of beyond-LOS vehicles. The delay is killing potential job growth and investment.

Many drone advocates fear that the ongoing delay will make the U.S a laggard, behind countries like Canada, which issues flying permits in couple of weeks. In 2013, Canada’s airspace regulator issued 945 drone permits—a significant increase compared to 345 issued in 2012. Here in the U.S. the FAA has issued 700-750 authorizations since 2006.

Getting your ass kicked by Canada is never a good sign, but that’s an embarrassing statistic.

About those Disney patent applications

Gregory McNeal has written an in-depth article on Forbes discussing the relationship between Disney’s patent applications and the need for the FAA to enact regulations that encourage, not stifle, innovation. The article is informative and well worth reading in full, but I’ll just excerpt a couple of points:

If Disney tried to use drones today, the FAA would immediately order them to cease their operations. That’s because the FAA believes that the commercial use of drones is unlawful (barring some limited exceptions) until such time as the agency promulgates new regulations.

Yes, the FAA’s rules are absurd for a number of reasons, not least of which is that Disney operates on vast areas of private land. Granted, the Disneyland property is surrounded on all sides by the city of Anaheim, but Disney World covers some 47 square miles. Shouldn’t such a large private property owner – especially one that regularly launches fireworks hundreds of feet into the air – be allowed to innovate within certain parameters? Say, below a certain altitude?

Even if the FAA promulgates new regulations, it is not clear that they will allow Disney’s flights. That’s because many believe that the FAA is planning to issue regulations that privilege certain types of drones and drone manufacturers — specifically those drones that have been previously used by the military or that are produced by major aerospace companies.

Government bureaucracies tend to model their rules based on what they know. And what the FAA knows about drones really doesn’t go much beyond what the public knows – i.e., drones that are used for military and intel purposes. Nothing scares the bejesus out of a bureaucrat more than the thought of something he doesn’t understand or, worse, something he can’t control. And private sector innovation threatens to force the FAA to accept the inherent risk in allowing such innovation to flourish.

There is also the problem, as McNeal mentions, of regulatory capture. Big government agencies tend to be part of a revolving door between those who regulate and those who are regulated. Many former bureaucrats become lobbyists for industries they once regulated. Many former leaders of regulated industries become heads of bureaucracies that they once answered to. The results in a feedback loop of money and industry cronyism, as each knows that the health of the other can affect his or her future career.

Seen from this point of view, an innovator like Disney must seem like an interloper, or a misfit. People who have been going through the revolving door just don’t know what to make of it.

Finally, McNeal notes Disney’s safety-consciousness. As someone who once worked at a Disney theme park (I was a monorail driver at Disney World – I won’t mention how long ago), I can personally vouch for how obsessed Disney is with safety. Disney’s corporate culture, how it values its public image, and of course its underwriters, all place excruciating pressures on Disney’s design and operations personnel to give Disney guests an experience that is both memorable and safe.

Disney is an ideal laboratory for the very sort of innovation that the FAA should be encouraging. Let’s hope that the FAA does the right thing.

Drone service to launch in South Florida

Coral Springs-based OpenSky Drones, LLC is launching a service that would use drones for building and safety inspections, among other things.

The unmanned aircraft’s cameras can live-stream visuals needed for building inspections, as well as natural gas detection and cellular tower energy readings for utilities and government agencies.

The service will not become operational until it receives FAA approval. We are frankly unsure of whether the service really needs FAA approval, given the Pirker decision, so long as the service operates line-of-sight aircraft below 400 feet and away from airports. But, as we’ve said before, serious investors in this new field want to play nice because it’s good for business over the long term to do so.

The question is, will the FAA play nice? Approving a business like this should be a no-brainer.

h/t sUAS News

Twin Cities Law Firm Launches Drone Practice

The Twin Cities law firm of Fafinski Mark & Johnson is launching a “drone” practice group. The law firm “said Tuesday that it has been closely monitoring the developing drone industry, and legal advisors and litigators from its aviation group will lead the new practice group.”

Expect to see more aviation law firms expand into the realm of drone law.

FAA Investigates Congressman’s Drone Wedding Video

Whoops:

The Federal Aviation Administration indicated Wednesday that it is investigating whether a video of an upstate New York congressman’s wedding last month violated the agency’s ban on drone flights for commercial purposes.

The agency’s carefully worded statement doesn’t mention Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, a Democrat, by name, but said it was looking into “a report of an unmanned aircraft operation in Cold Spring, New York, on June 21 to determine if there was any violation of federal regulations or airspace restrictions.”

Although we hope that the photographer doesn’t get hit, on balance we find this situation to be rather amusing. The FAA is being forced by its own misguided rhetoric to investigate an event that was paid for by a member of Congress whose responsibilities include FAA oversight.

Break out the popcorn.