The Close-Out Edition of Dronin' On 12.31.16
Winter flock

Hi all –

It’s finally time to put 2016 in the rear view mirror. Obviously change is in the air which makes it important to focus on what will actually move the industry forward in 2017.

What won’t move anything forward is the most recent salvo from the Heritage Foundation, this time torching the FAA for the “Christmas” registration rule implemented in 2015. “The FAA’s recreational registry was, and remains, one of the most egregious acts of regulatory overcriminalization in recent memory.” The article is entitled How the FAA’s War on Drones Is Killing a Popular Pastime.

Not sure that Christmas sales do much to bear the title out… The FAA says 2.5M sold to date with 1M expected to be sold this Christmas. Which means that they should break 1M registrations shortly – which we are waiting to see. (I know; I have an idea about where they get their numbers too. Read on.)

“Fortunately, the FAA’s lawless actions have not escaped notice and scrutiny. Aside from the legal challenge [John Taylor and Jonathan Rupprecht] to the registry requirement, the House Freedom Caucus recently identified the recreational rule as one of over 200 Obama-era regulations that should be repealed when the incoming Trump administration takes office in January.”

When the decision to create a rule was first announced in October 2014, I wrote a blog post entitled 10 Things I Think About The Registration Initiative. In it I said:

“I think that hurry-up policy making is a bad idea. This process is starting too late to have any influence on Christmas 2015 and could well end up being seen as another failure that the DOT and the FAA can ill afford.

  • Exclusions are a bad idea.
  • Not using technology is a bad idea.
  • Catering to very small special interest groups is a bad idea.
  • And mostly we need a much broader definition of safety for a class of products that will be as ubiquitous as these.”

Let’s look at where we are 14 months later.

  • The FAA got roasted both for the rule and the way they did it.
  • Though no proficiency or certification is required, the AMA CBO still has the most liberal rule set of the four.
  • There is no use of technology to identify the pilot or aircraft, or to support the registration process.
  • The primary beneficiaries – the retailers and manufacturers who were instrumental in getting this watered down rule in place – are still getting a free ride.
  • No work has been done on safety though ASSURE has a lot in the works.

No argument that the process was rushed, the court will decide if it was illegal. (Then what?) Penalties are draconian. There has been no consistent enforcement since you can’t prosecute someone you can’t catch – and then there are those who have not been prosecuted when caught. Much to my surprise, the post touched off a firestorm when I posted it on LinkedIn.

But what is more important, and speaks to keeping our eyes on the prize, is that the Heritage broadside does nothing to advance the discussion. Despite the click-bait headline, there is no shortage of recreational drones in the sky. Do we really want two or three times as many? In the larger scheme of things, recreational drones employ very few Americans outside the retail sector. So I just don’t see repealing and replacing it as a priority, there is too much else to do.

The FAA has granted a COA to the Northern Plains UAS Test Site in North Dakota to oversee BVLOS operations. This is the direct result of an ongoing effort by U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, (R-N.D.) to establish North Dakota as a leader by bringing together a FAA test site, the Grand Sky Technology Park, the Grand Forks Air Force Base and the University of North Dakota Center for Innovation.

The interesting thing here is Hoeven’s announcement that “This authorization will help companies like General Atomics, Northrop Grumman and future tenants at the Grand Sky technology park test and evaluate complex UAS operations possible nowhere else in the nation. It also makes North Dakota an attractive place for government agencies like NASA, the Air Force and the Department of Homeland Security to integrate UAS into the national airspace system.”

He continued “Our facility will enable FAA and DOD to work together in one location. We’ll be able to do research, testing, training and deployment without chase aircraft statewide across North Dakota. That can’t be done anyplace else in the country and will give us a competitive edge.”

Hoeven is a smart guy, and it is always smart to follow the money. But on the face of it, this seems to have very little to do with sUAS and everything to do with the military industrial complex. In fact, large UAS are governed by a different set of rules and can already fly in the NAS…

All of which puts Are You Ready For Your FAA UAS Site Visit? into question. It’s a reasonably clever sales piece from a startup called eQual Certified that starts out with a little FUD “Part 107.7 discusses the inspection, testing, and demonstration of compliance with FAA regulations with regard to UAS. When are they coming? Good question!”

For decades the FAA’s stock in trade has been inspection. But the recent move to SMS (Safety Management System) is a move away from on-premise inspection to data analysis in support of risk identification and mitigation.

  • Think back to the recent DOT audit that pointed out that the FAA has put no data collection mechanisms in place.
  • Think back to the continuing slide in the FAA’s headcount and wonder if there are any inspectors to do drone inspection on a consistent basis.
  • Think back on the enormous disconnect within the FAA between the field and headquarters about all things UAV.
  • Finally ask yourself if the FAA’s inflated commercial forecasts have been at least in part a wily bureaucratic attempt to justify budget.

Here’s the thing. The commercial drone industry collectively hoped that by removing uncertainty, Part 107 would get people (organizations and dronepreneurs) off the sidelines and kick start the industry. The FAA had a somewhat different objective which was to get everyone off their back while doing what they could to head off a drone strike in the NAS.

Right now we have all of four months under our collective belts – nowhere near enough to say that current regulations are slowing corporate implementation. And nowhere near enough data to determine if Part 107 is a success or failure from a safety perspective.

I was honored to see that Commercial UAV News picked Why Standards Will Be Critical to UAV Adoption as one of the year’s Top 10 articles. What the article says is that the market needs stability and standards to grow.

Looking at the relatively modest number of Certificates that have been issued, it is also clear that we need to increase public awareness of and preference for Part 107 certificate holders to encourage people to invest their time in building careers as drone pilots and service providers.

I believe that as an industry our goal for 2017 must be to build confidence and trust. We must communicate that we are proactive about privacy, safety and security. We must turn the hype and buzz into value. Becoming a political proof point will not help us to build the future that we all imagine.

To close, I’ve chosen a couple of Eye Candy Tag Award winners that reflect both the risk and the promise ahead. The premise behind Are The Skies Closing To Dronography is that due to regulation more and more of the world is being placed off limits. This is something we all need to be concerned about. TIME Picks 6 Of The Most Innovative Drone Videos Of 2016 presents new ways that drones can be used to explore that same world.

It has been an amazing year. Thank you for the opportunity to start your weekend. And thank you as always for reading and for sharing.

Here’s to a bright New Year.


Christopher Korody
follow me @dronewriter

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.