The Inauguration Day Edition of Dronin' On 01.21.17Hi all –

Since I first wrote “Hello World” I have studiously avoided discussing politics on these pages. That said, like any highly regulated business, the sUAS industry is based on assumptions about the regulatory environment.

So as we change the guard in Washington D.C., I thought it appropriate to take a moment to look at the conditions that have brought us to where we are so that you can fill in the future to taste.

  • Our industry has flourished in a creative, pro-technology environment. Go back and look at the FAA’s position on drones in 2007 and its position today.
  • Our industry has flourished as part of a global technology community. I can make a strong argument that drones have only achieved a high level of awareness and adoption because of a neutral to positive trading relationship with China.
  • Our industry has flourished, and our future is predicated on, the availability of massive bandwidth across the entire country.
  • Our industry has flourished because a police state has not been in vogue.

In my opinion, the very foundations of our industry are going to change.

  • Regulation of our industry has been predicated on the idea that drones are manned aircraft. Which they clearly are not.
  • Because of this, the regulation of our industry has evolved as if the FAA controls the air below 500’. Which it may not.

It has always been clear to me that regulating UAVs as if they were manned aircraft makes little sense. Let’s be blunt. Jamming or shooting down a UAV is not the same thing as knocking a manned aircraft out of the sky. Nor does it make any sense to treat a UAV hovering at 50’ over your property the same way that we treat Southwest 2234 passing by at 41,000 feet.

Jason Snead and John—Michael Seibler from the Heritage Foundation (home of DOT Sec nominee Elaine Chao) are giving notice that they are about to try to make this a topic of discussion in Redefining “Aircraft,” Defining “Drone”: A Job for the 115th Congress“The federal criminal code makes clear that certain aviation-related conduct is criminal, but few if any of these statutes make sense when applied to drones. To avoid attaching criminal liability to harmless backyard drone operations, Congress should rein in the FAA’s regulatory flights of fancy and clarify that drones are not aircraft for purposes of federal law.”

It is a laissez-faire argument that will appeal to the #freethedrones advocates among you. Most telling is their fourth recommendation “Restrict the FAA’s ability to regulate unmanned aircraft activity that does not take place within the national airspace or within a reasonable radius of an airport or sensitive military or national security–related site. Congress should also consider codifying the exact altitude at which the national airspace begins in order to prevent the FAA from redefining the term and abrogating property rights in, and local and state control of, low-altitude, currently unregulated airspace.”

For a thoughtful overview of “how low does the NAS go” read The Space Between: Who Controls the Airspace Where Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Fly? by Joshua S. Turner, partner and co-chair of the UAS Practice, and John T. Lin, associate in the Telecom, Media & Technology Practice, at Wiley Rein in Washington, DC. “If the minimum safe altitude for flight is essentially zero feet AGL, is there a private property right in the airspace directly above the land that might put a different lower limit on what is “navigable”?  And, if so, who has the authority to regulate that airspace?”

In my opinion, as soon as sUAVs are treated differently from manned aircraft the “grass up” argument is going to go the way of the dodo and fly straight out the window. I understand that it is the law today – I also understand laws change and new laws can be written.

If you want a clue as to why such laws might be written at the state and local level read Protesters fear L.A. County sheriff’s drones could be used for spying. Right now it’s a small group but they are expressing a big concern. It is going to be interesting is to see how this balances out with the law and order coming out of Washington D.C.

Storm Clouds: Looming Conflicts Between Drone Operators and Law Enforcement over Collected Data gives shape to those concerns. The author, Travis Moran, has over 24 years of enforcement and intelligence experience. In his view “Issues [involving flight data] will inevitably arise and cause potential conflict between law enforcement and legitimate drone operators.” If Apple is being pressured to hack their iPhones, how do you suppose this will work with flight recorders and
UTM data?

Another clue is the rapidly accelerating cadence of stories with titles like ISIS Has Converted Commercial Drones Into Bombers from Mosul. Point being that the more of these stories come out, the greater public concern is going to be. Why? So far, ISIS has not used these drones to deliver chemical weapons.”

What a relief – what kind of mischief could one of these aircraft cause here in New Mexico?

Too long overdue is Impact Test Crash Dummies Getting Hit by Drones conducted by Virginia Tech. “The main target of these research and experiment is to find out what design, construction, max speed etc. can be fatal.” The funny part is that this was obviously translated from Chinese.

If you want another clue, consider Drone registration exemption flies through Senate committee out of South Dakota. “The Senate Transportation Committee voted unanimously Wednesday to send to the full chamber a bill that would exempt some unmanned aircraft from state [aircraft] registration requirements. Transportation Department Secretary Darin Bergquist says [The bill] would save drone owners an original registration tax of 4 percent of the purchase price [$50?] and a $25 annual registration fee.”

This is one of those “taking a bow for what you didn’t do” kind of stories. Flipped around the implication in “not doing” is that they could if they wanted to. Bergquist estimates that there are 6,000 drones in the state. Which leads me to wonder if someone didn’t figure out that the cost of enforcement outweighed the
projected revenue.

Ready or not, the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2017 will have to provide a forum for much of this. Most people estimate that it will take the courts a decade to resolve many of these issues. Make no mistake, any ambiguity will slow
enterprise adoption.

Meanwhile the second FAA Drone Advisory Committee (DAC) public meeting is coming up January 31st in Reno. According to the press release “The DAC’s main objective during its second meeting will be to review and potentially approve three task groups. The first task group will review issues related to the roles and responsibilities of federal, state, and local governments in regulating and enforcing drone laws. The second task group will consider technological and regulatory mechanisms… The DAC will also discuss the formation of a third task group, which will consider ways to fund the expanded provision of services needed to support UAS integration.”

I was looking for a transition and the ever-forthright Patrick Egan provided a beauty. So Long 2016, Vaya Con Dios Intellectual Honesty. If you are not a student of the Romance languages, “vaya con dios” literally means go with God. In the context of Egan’s headline, a more appropriate translation is something like “kiss
it goodbye.”

Egan writes that “Every time I see a drone industry valuation forecast I cringe. I cringe again when it cites the AUVSI economic forecast.” I double cringe that people are still selling and buying this hoo ha…

On the good news side of a long day, 2016 Best Year Ever for Funding UAS Startups is a global overview from The Robot Report128 companies got funded, some multiple times. $1.95 billion, 50% more than 2015 which was also a phenomenal year with over $1.32 billion funded.” I’ll do the math for you, smaller deals – no blockbusters. The big winner was Zipline, the company that is busy delivering blood instead of burritos in Africa.

To that let’s add Exhibit A, the recently filed lawsuit against Lily for using fake footage to promote the drone (hardly the only or last time.) When the small UAV NPRM comes out, we can look forward to more FOIA revelations.

A nasty, down to earth example of the problems that the FAA has to deal with comes from the American Radio Relay League (ARRL), the national association for amateur radio (a group even more grandfathered in than the AMA).  ARRL Complaint Asserts that Illegal Drone Transmitters Could Interfere with Air Traffic Control alleges that the transmitters use frequencies intended for navigational aids, air traffic control radar, air route surveillance radars, and global positioning systems. These illegal transmitters represent a significant hazard to public safety in general and the safety of flight specifically.” Not at all good. So why are we letting them into the country?

Little Ripper has a day out, shark spotting drone flies away chronicles the much ballyhooed $250K Australian shark buster that has followed Malaysia 370 into an unmarked grave. “In the home flight mode, the RPA did not respond to the control inputs made by the pilot, and the pilot subsequently lost sight of the RPA. The RPA was not found despite an extensive search.” This time people know what happened – incorrectly entered GPS points and C2 failure. 

As always I want to leave you with some good stuff.

One of the very nicest, very smartest people in our space is Mark Bathrick, the Director of Aviation for the Department of Interior. What can I say except that I hope that his new boss gets it. Because this man is jewel/gem/win. If you really want to understand the potential of drones, listen to Mark’s interview with Ian Smith on Commercial Drones FM. Totally recommended.

Another startling piece is DARPA’s Top Ten Stories of 2016. “At DARPA, we love all our programs equally but we understand that some of our efforts wow the public more than others. So to help our followers end the year with fond memories of some of their favorite DARPA moments—and to draw attention to some programs that even the closest DARPA watchers may have missed—we’ve compiled a countdown of the year’s ten most popular updates to DARPA’s news page.” Which oh-by-the-way got 27 million page views. Hats off to a great
communications program.

I could go on but we might be bombing Bali…

Thanks for reading and for sharing.


Christopher Korody
follow me @dronewriter

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