Question: What Should the FAA Do About Small UAS?
To answer today’s burning question—and burning is probably an understatement—you need to watch this video. It’s quite engaging. Click back when you’re done; I’ll wait.
So the question is, does the FAA have a compelling responsibility to protect the public from potential harm that could accrue from such filming using small UAVs? Should the agency prohibit or at the least regulate such activities?
The film in question is the much-celebrated Raphael Pirker video at the University of Virginia. The FAA enforced against Pirker and levied a $10,000 fine, claiming he violated FAR 91.13, the careless or reckless catchall. Although it wasn’t relevant to the official legal proceeding, the FAA’s 2007 policy statement that differentiated commercial use of small UAVs from model aircraft flying was often mentioned in news coverage. The FAA pointedly does not regulate model aircraft.
An NSTB administrative law judge invalidated the fine against Pirker and tossed the case, explaining that the FAA overreached and has no authority to regulate small UAVs, much less levy fines. Pirker’s lawyer, Brendan Schulman, points out that the 2007 FAA policy statement declaring commercial use of drones illegal has no weight, since the agency failed to follow its own stringent rulemaking process. The FAA has appealed the 91.13 jurisdictional portion of the case
But to hear Jim Williams tell it, the agency hasn’t been dissuaded from further enforcement in the slightest. Williams heads the FAA’s UAS office and he spoke this week before a crowd of industry manufacturers, operators and suppliers at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International conference in Orlando. Williams said—rightly, I think—that small UAS represent some risk to the public. In support of his case, he showed a video of an incident in Virginia in which a quadricopter lost control and crashed into a crowd, injuring one person. It was unclear how seriously. He flashed another slide of an incident that occurred in March of this year when a USAirways regional jet on approach to Tallahassee reported a near-collision with a UAV of some type. No UAV was ever identified, nor was an operator found. Williams was speaking to a skeptical crowd and my guess is he wasn’t too convincing.
I tried to put on my objective journalist hat to decide whether those two incidents and a third one in Australia represent the clear and present danger that Williams claims requires the FAA to protect the unsuspecting public from wild-eyed drone operators. I remain profoundly unconvinced, while accepting his underlying notion that these systems do represent some risk to people and property on the ground and to manned aircraft.
Officially, the AUVSI (and the FAA) punts on the small UAS issue, referring to voluntary guidelines (PDF) published by the Academy of Model Aeronautics. AUVSI’s hard push is for integrating larger UAS into the national airspace safely and legally. For small UAS, it has been encouraging specific interests to negotiate directly with the FAA. These include the agriculture and film industries and companies that inspect power and pipelines. AUVSI is concerned that small UAS operators will go rogue and soil the entire industry with a bad rep, a legitimate worry.
Ignoring the FAA’s overreach, was Pirker in compliance with the published AMA guidelines? I’d say not entirely, but that doesn’t make his flight careless or reckless. He obtained permission from the university, prepped carefully to the extent of even closing streets and his aircraft was a small, light Styrofoam (aka a "foamie") design of minimal weight and injury-causing potential. I thought Williams disingenuously harmed his cred before the AUVSI audience by not mentioning any of this. Flying under a pedestrian bridge sounds insanely reckless, but with a five-pound Styrofoam model? Would it be just as reckless to toss a Frisbee through the same airspace? And the AMA guidelines could use some revisions to keep pace both with the technology and what operators are actually doing with these aircraft, including commercial potential.
As pilots, we most certainly have a dog in this fight. A veritable explosion of small, low-altitude unmanned aircraft is just over the horizon and irrespective of whether we want them buzzing around our neighborhoods, we have an interest in how they’re operated around airports. This is not something we can’t or shouldn’t be thinking about.
All technologies have a risk-reward ratio. I’m quite certain more people have been killed or injured in cellphone-related traffic accidents just this week than have ever been or are ever likely to be injured by small camera drones. Cellphones have clear benefits; UAS camera platforms do, too, albeit not nearly as pervasive. At least so far. Part of the FAA’s job is to protect the public from unreasonable risk from things that fly. It is not to construct an impenetrable womb around every living man, woman and child. And that’s another way of saying we live in a world in which the unsuspecting and uninvolved public can’t be protected against every conceivable risk, whether outdoors, at schools, sporting events or in the mall parking lot. That’s the price of progress; get used to it.
If I learned anything at the AUVSI event, it’s this: many of us in general aviation are clueless about the extent of what’s coming. We need to have opinions on this.