FAA Fails to Include Drones in NextGen Plans


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?

An alternative approach to small drone regulations?

Writing at Aviation Today, authors Henry Perritt, Jr. and Eliot O. Sprague make some interesting suggestions for a more practical, alternative approach to FAA regulations for small, line of sight drones (what they call “microdrones”): Treat them as a consumer product, like a cell phone or lawn mower.

They begin with a stunning admission from the FAA:

In May 2014, Jim Williams, head of the FAA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) office, told the Small Unmanned Systems Business Expo that general regulations for microdrones would not be promulgated until after 2020. Congress, in the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act, mandated that such regulations be effective no later than 2015. This much of a delay beyond the congressionally mandated deadline invites a lawsuit telling the FAA to move forward quickly.

The reason it will take so long is that the FAA assumes that it will begin with existing regulations for manned aircraft and adapt them line by line, to the peculiarities of microdrones.

Instead, the authors argue,

the agency should take advantage of the capabilities of microdrone technology to enforce certain limits on flight profiles autonomously. Such an approach would focus FAA energy on defining what limits should be built into drones commercially marketed, relieving it of detailed regulation of airmen and detailed flight rules to be enforced in the conventional way.

Taking a cue from the FCC’s regulation of cell phones, the authors suggest that the FAA require that microdrones have certain limitations and capabilities built into their hardware and software. For example:

The most basic rules to be encoded into microdrones are already agreed on. First, a height limit is necessary to keep microdrones away from the airspace in which manned craft fly most of the time. Under the proposed approach, legal microdrones must have a navigational mechanism – a combination of barometric pressure sensors and GPS navigational systems – that would not permit them to fly above 400 ft. AGL.

Second, microdrones can be flown only within line of sight. In order to keep them there, microdrones must have a built-in radius limit of, say, 1,500 ft. horizontally from the DROP.

As a further prerequisite for certification, microdrones must have a return-to-home feature that could be triggered by the DROP, and which would be automatically triggered by loss of signal. This also might be triggered by an indication that the DROP has become inattentive, kind of like the “dead man control” on railroad locomotives.

Many microdrone operators would probably not be in full agreement on these proposed limitations. We imagine, for instance, that operators would not be happy with the FAA imposing an arbitrary maximum horizontal radius to enforce line of sight. But, on balance, this seems to us like a preferable approach to insuring that both commercial operators and hobbyists are able to use off-the-shelf technology without having to go through the cumbersome process of obtaining traditional FAA certifications.

What do you think?

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.

Amazon seeks FAA permission to test drone delivery

Amazon’s share price is apparently up, in part on news that it has sought FAA approval to test its drone delivery system:

Amazon is asking the government to allow testing of its new delivery mechanism — small package-carrying drones that can travel at up to 50 miles per hour. The company notes in its letter that its drones can now carry loads up to 5 pounds, which it notes covers 86% of all products sold on Amazon.

There’s a lot of confusion in the article, some of which appears to be the fault of Amazon, itself. Let’s begin with this statement:

The FAA, which controls the skies above the US, has prohibited companies from testing drones — only making an exception for hobbyists

Well, not exactly. The FAA doesn’t control all of the skies above the U.S., but only that part of the skies over which it has traditionally exercised jurisdiction. As well, the “exception” for hobbyists is not tethered to the ban on testing, and the FAA has yet to enact regulations defining “hobbyists.” The comment period on the definition has yet to close.

More to the point, the NTSB judge ruled in Huerta v. Pirker that the FAA had failed to draw any meaningful distinction between someone who operates a model aircraft for pleasure and one who operates the same or similar model aircraft for profit. As far as anyone can tell at the moment, the only effective prohibition at the moment applies to aircraft that are operated beyond line of sight – i.e., by methods other than those traditionally employed by hobbyists.

This brings us to the next point:

Amazon argues that its drone testing will actually be safer than that of hobbyists, flying under 400 feet and “in a confined area over isolated Amazon private property” away from airports, government installations, and densely populated areas.

But would they be operated within line of sight? Amazon’s letter to the FAA provides additional detail regarding its proposed testing operations:

The sUAS will (i) have a maximum weight of less than 55 pounds; (ii) be rotorpowered
via a battery source; and (iii) be U.S.‐registered and display marks in accordance with 14 C.F.R. Part 45, Subpart C.5

Our sUAS R&D testing under this exemption will be conducted (i) within the visual line of sight of the operator and/or one or more observers; (ii) at less than 400 feet AGL; and (iii) within Class G airspace.

The operations will be conducted in a confined area over isolated Amazon private property located a sufficient distance away from (i) any airport, heliport, seaplane base, spaceport or other location with aviation activities; (ii) any densely populated areas; and (iii) any military or U.S. government installations or airfields.

All operations will remain within the lateral and vertical boundaries of the operating area, taking into account all factors, including wind, gross weight and glide distances, that may affect the capability of the sUAS to remain within the airspace boundary; moreover, the integrity of the operating area will be reinforced by geo‐fencing, including the ceiling height of no more than 400 feet AGL.

Given these parameters, it is tempting to suggest that Amazon could rely on the Pirker decision and not seek permission from the FAA. But of course, the last thing Amazon wants is to give the FAA an excuse to shut it down. Amazon is trying to play nice, here. The question is whether the FAA will do the right thing.

Earlier in the letter, Amazon indicates that it has thus far been forced to conduct testing either indoors or in foreign countries that already have regulations in place. The fact that Amazon has been forced to conduct its testing abroad is a shame. The FAA should promptly grant Amazon’s request.

FAA Investigating Legality of Fireworks Drone Flight

Pretty much everyone on the planet has by now seen the YouTube video of a fireworks display that was shot from a drone. A report is now circulating that the FAA is investigating the legality of that flight:

According to Forbes, the FAA is now actively looking into whether drones that fly into fireworks displays is a “violation of federal regulations or airspace restrictions.”

Has anybody ever heard of such a regulation?

NYC Drone Operators Charged

After an alleged near-miss with a NYPD helicopter over the George Washington Bridge, two drone operators have been arrested and will face charges for reckless endangerment. The NY Post has more details, including an allegation that the drones were being operated at an altitude of 2,000 feet.

The author of the Forbes article (at the first link) argues that no additional laws are necessary in a case like this:

Remy Castro, 23 and Wilkins Mendoza, 34 were charged in Manhattan Criminal Court with felony reckless endangerment. That law states:

A person is guilty of reckless endangerment in the first degree when, under circumstances evincing a depraved indifference to human life, he recklessly engages in conduct which creates a grave risk of death to another person.”

The author discusses whether the charge might be reduced to misdemeanor endangerment, given the high burden of proof for a charge of felony endangerment. His reasoning seems correct to us.

FAA Faces Significant Barriers to Safely Integrating UAS Vehicles Into the National Airspace System

To the surprise of no one who’s been paying attention, the FAA finds itself in a pickle.

A scathing new Inspector General report suggests that the office of the FAA tasked with integrating drones into the national air space is in disarray and suggests that the agency has so many hurdles to clear before drones can be safely integrated nationwide that it believes the day drones become commonplace may never come.

Here is the Inspector General’s summary:

Significant technological, regulatory, and management barriers exist to safely integrate UAS into the NAS. First, following many years of working with industry, FAA has not reached consensus on standards for technology that would enable UAS to detect and avoid other aircraft and ensure reliable data links between ground stations and the unmanned aircraft they control. Second, FAA has not established a regulatory framework for UAS integration, such as aircraft certification requirements, standard air traffic procedures for safely managing UAS with manned aircraft, or an adequate controller training program for managing UAS. Third, FAA is not effectively collecting and analyzing UAS safety data to identify risks. This is because FAA has not developed procedures for ensuring that all UAS safety incidents are reported and tracked or a process for sharing UAS safety data with the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), the largest user of UAS. Finally, FAA is not effectively managing its oversight of UAS operations. Although FAA established a UAS Integration Office, it has not clarified lines of reporting or established clear guidance for UAS regional inspectors on authorizing and overseeing UAS operations. Until FAA addresses these barriers, UAS integration will continue to move at a slow pace, and safety risks will remain.

This suggests a shocking level of disarray within the organization. The easiest part of this process, and one that should have begun years ago, would be to establish a system for collecting safety data. But the FAA hasn’t even established a regime for sharing safety data with the DoD, let alone collecting data from the private sector. Given recent “enforcement” actions, one imagines that the FAA has assigned a roomful of interns to collect safety data by monitoring news stories on the internet.

It’s like asking Johnny to hand in his essay and finding that Johnny hasn’t even begun researching his topic, let alone started writing. Perhaps Johnny can be forgiven. But a major US regulatory agency with oversight of a critical public safety function shouldn’t be cut any slack. And this is not just endangering public safety; it’s holding up billions of dollars in business investment that promises to create many high-paying jobs. It’s not like we have a surplus of economic growth flying around, these days.

POTUS needs to start firing people. But I’m not holding my breath.