UAVs: Chafing (Rightfully) Against Regulation

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At the AUVSI in Orlando on Monday, I ran into my old friend Jon Doolittle, long-time pilot and aviation insurance broker. I shouldnít have been surprised that heís branched out and started selling insurance for UAVs. Of course, the underwriters are baffled about what to charge for such coverage because thereís no loss history worth mentioning, thus no risk profile worthy of the name. Give it timeÖ

Both of us got a good laugh at one thing thatís excruciatingly obvious about this show: It reveals how cynical and beat down those of us who have been plying the troubled waters of general aviation have become. Jon and I could both be described as hard-bitten, hollow-eyed veterans of an industry that has been in steady decline for as long as any of us can remember. But the drone crowd is different. Way different. For one thing, at every turn, it has been infused with defense and homeland security investment. For another, unburdened by FAA certification rules in any meaningful way, its technical achievements come fast and furious. Third, the market applications are sharply ascendant with new proposals and ideas occurring at the rate of one a minute. It wasnít lost on me that AUVSI set aside one large room with comfortable couches and coffee expressly for the purpose of idea exchange.† Go forth and network.

This gives the entire enterprise a buoyant, optimistic energy of the sort we havenít seen in GA since, oh, I dunno, the day after Lindbergh landed in Paris. Itís infectious but also oddly virginal, unspoiled by the forces of doom. And that, of course, will be the FAA, whose abilityóor inability--to rapidly develop workable rules for UAS hangs like a cloud over the entire industry. But hereís the interesting part: Most of the people in this industry arenít pilots, theyíre techies coming out of the defense, IT and computer industries. Their view of product and service development is unhindered by the slow-leak hell of modern certification.

As a result, some tend to view the FAA as a friendly agency whoís in their court, diligently working to develop rules that will allow the industry to flourish. If that sounds like naivetť unblemished by the reality of actually having to deal with FAAís sclerotic, bloated bureaucracy, it probably is. But from talking to people on the show floor, I have to admit that itís not a universal sentiment. The scales are slowly being removed from their eyes.

All of us in GA have seen FAA execs venture into the field and show a clear understanding of the issues that effect the industry and to a man or woman, they express a sincere desire to rapidly and favorably address same to the benefit of all. And despite what we all may think, many actually try to do this. But when these realizations are taken back to the hive at 800 Independence, things change: turf and political battles intervene, Congress meddles, budgets are slashed and then itís delay, delay, delay. And so it was that Jim Williams, head of the FAAís UAS office, said rules for small unmanned systems will be delayed and itís likely to be at least another two years before they appear. For larger UAS, it will be longer than that.

Iím tempted to go all Pollyanna here and say it will be different with the much-needed UAS rulemaking. But at an early age, the nuns taught me to resist temptation so Iím going to guess it wonít be much different for the budding UAS industry except in one way: I predict the FAA is going to see more and more under-the-radar commercial use of small drones and itís going to find itself in more and more enforcement actions like the much talked-about Pirker case.

But Williams struck an almost defiant tone at AUVSI. Despite the court case that told the FAA it doesnít have the authority to regulate small drones at low altitude, Williams says the agency owns all the airspace from the surface up. And it will continue to enforce against unauthorized commercial use of small UAS.

My gut feel is that the FAA is fighting a losing battle here, using outdated, slow moving rulemaking processes that donít accommodate an industry thatís moving at the speed of light. GA is a turtleóand a sick one at thatóthe UAS industry is a cheetah. In the seven years the agency says it will take to develop rules for major systems, this industry will likely reinvent itself several times over. Iím quite certain the smarter people in the FAA see this. They absolutely get it. I just doubt they have the ability to respond to it quickly. Meanwhile, watch the rest of the world outstrip the U.S. in applications of this technology.

What to Call These Things?

I donít know about the rest of the press, but the terminology in this industry gives me heartburn. I donít like to call them drones because the connotation isnít precisely right. Some people in the industry use the term, but most donít. Itís analogous to calling flight data recorders black boxes, a term thatís entirely an invention of the press. No one in the industry actually uses it.

So Iíve taken to using the terms UAS or UAV. UASóunmanned aircraft system(s)óis the umbrella term while UAVóunmanned aerial vehicleócan apply to aircraft in the singular. Or the plural. I throw an occasional drone in there for variety, but Iím fighting the urge. Drones are either male honeybees or objects used as targets. UAVs are neither.

Howís This For Irony?

Looking over the show press guidelines, I noticed a provision that said journalists couldnít use video cameras or lighting systems on the floor. Really? Thatís a first. When I checked with the show press office, they said I could shoot what I wanted, but clear it with the subjects because some donít like to have their pictures taken.

Thatís rich. Hereís an entire industry devoted to snooping and invasion of privacy, but theyíre wall flowers when the camera is turned their way? It turned out to be a non-issue.

Best UAV Ever!

Except, you guessed it, they call it a drone. A French company called Parrot made a surprise showing with a consumer-grade UAV they call the Bebop Drone. In a vast hall full of serious military and would-be commercial spying and survey apparatus, this little gadget was a welcome bit of fun.

Itís basically a flying cameraó1080p and 14mp with a wide fisheye lensóusing a quadricopter platform. It has its own wireless node and that allows it to livestream video to a tablet, which also serves as the control device. Thereís an optional dedicated control unit that incorporates a tablet for real-time viewing of streamed video. It has a more powerful wireless network. The Bebop can also be used with FPV glasses. But hereís the killer feature: The Bebopís camera is electronically, not mechanical gyro, stabilized. Thatís quite a kick for a consumer gadget that flies.

Parrot says the Bebop will ship by the end of the year. They declined to put a price on it, but Parrotís previous product, the AR.Drone, sold for about $300. So take your guess on what this one will cost. Iím getting one no matter what.

No Tire Kickers

Attendance wise, AUVSI is a small show with a lot of exhibitors, drawing 6000 to 8000 participants for whatís essentially a four-day event. Dilettantes need not apply. Full-up admission is between $859 and $1109 and a hall pass alone costs between $100 and $300.

I didnít hear any complaints about the gate fee, however, because this crowd is as serious and purposeful as any Iíve seen anywhere in aviation, including NBAA. As with all shows, itís international, but much younger than any GA show and few of the people I spoke to had any general aviation knowledge or involvement. UAVs are their thing. But once the FAA is done with them, theyíll be forced marched into the ranks of general aviation and I suspect there will be inevitable cross pollination. One way or another, UAVs are in our future.

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Comments (17)

I wonder if the FAA realizes the ramifications of their slow rate of progress. Humans in general, and Americans in particular HATE arbitrary laws. Part of the reason we follow "the rules" is because they make sense: Wear your seltbelt because it'll save your life, Stop at red lights so you don't run over people. In some countries, where the rule of law is so-so, the fines for breaking arbitary rules are "part of doing business". If you make a million dollars a day, why be worried about a $1,000 fine? It's in the noise! If the price of a UAV is low and the profit is high, the companies will consider them disposable items and won't worry about them.

If the FAA doesn't get real with their rulemaking process, we'll have skies full of unmarked (don't want to identify yourself), unregulated UAVs AND no rules on the horizon.


Posted by: JEFFREY SMITH | May 14, 2014 1:06 PM    Report this comment

UAVs are definitely in the future, just looking at some of the other projects taking place that I'm aware of. Some of the existing "UAVs" (which look a lot like model aircraft) are already starting to get big enough to be a concern to "MAVs". And with no real regulations controlling them, I worry that someone living near an airport will get the bright idea to buzz some of the "richboy plaything" aircraft at the airport as a form of retribution against them, and eventually cause an accident.

There's no sense in fighting the future of the UAV industry, and certainly there is the potential for many useful applications of them, so I'm not against them in principle. But since many of them are capable of sharing some of the same airspace as manned aircraft, something has to be done soon to ensure the safety of all involved.

In the mean time, can they come up with a better name for the show? A-U-V-S-I doesn't flow that great, and "aww-visi" doesn't look right. :-p

Posted by: Gary Baluha | May 14, 2014 1:10 PM    Report this comment

If the FAA had been around when the Wright Brothers first flew, America would have had no aircraft at all until the beginning of WW2.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | May 14, 2014 2:01 PM    Report this comment

I think the FAA should just stay out of it. Give them the airspace below 400 ft and weight below some number (say 5 LBs) and let them have fun as long as they are at least 5 miles from any airport. anything larger or higher will need to be licensed/registered be equipped with ADS-B out and have it on full time.

Posted by: RODNEY HALL | May 15, 2014 9:24 AM    Report this comment

The new businesses and services that will become available in this space is really exciting and somewhat mind blowing. One area that seems to be overlooked is the public's reaction to having little black dots whirling past (and loitering) everywhere. It's one thing to have the occaisonal C172 fly overhead but imagine having hundreds of little UAV's darting around, potentially 24/7.

I know I want one to fly around my house for the fun of it...then again, I assume many others in my neighborhood will too, especially kids on break. So, imagine how you'd feel relaxing in your home and then seeing a UAV peering in the window? City planners, lawyers, residents etc will unite and probably be a lot more effective than the FAA will ever be. Like you see at the major international airshows where the latest fighter is sitting next to the latest surface-to-air missile vendor, I suspect there will be plenty of business opportunites for everyone.

Posted by: Julian O'Dea | May 15, 2014 4:38 PM    Report this comment

The FAA is between a rock and a hard place on this.

They need to get the regulations right. If some approved UAV has an incident with a transport aircraft, and people are hurt, there will be such a cry from the general public no UAVs will ever fly. Congress will do something, and it will be a huge mess.

Sure the industry is in a hurry, so of a land grab. People have all kinds of ideas, and numbers are thrown about, but in the end, someone has to pay for it. Sure there are talks about this or that will be done by drones, and it will employ X people. If the task is currently being done by aircraft (IE pipeline patrol), it doesn't mean the number of employees will change (you still need pilots, and maintenance people, and they will unemploy the current pilots and maintenance people). There will be a shift, not a huge bump.

People say the FAA can let the drones have the airspace under 400 feet, but that only works away from airports. There is still the possibility that a drone can hurt someone at that level. The smaller drones that don't weigh much are susceptible to winds and turbulence, and may loose control if used on poor weather days.

Larger drones are more stable and less prone to turbulence, but when they fail, or control is lost, they crash somewhere, not always in unpopulated areas. Have liability issues been worked out with insurance carriers?

If drones are operated near or in the same airspace as other aircraft, the pilots and operators must follow the same rules. How is the training going to be conducted, and who will be qualified to instruct these pilots/operators.

Autonomous systems have the same failure modes, and maybe more. If power fails, or mechanical problems occur, what are their procedures? Will the aircraft be able to land safely, or away from people and property.

There is a lot to work out, more than most people think.

Posted by: Tom Brusehaver | May 16, 2014 9:14 AM    Report this comment

I expect it will be similar to what happened when the computer nerds started playing with medical imaging equipment and rubbed up against the FDA.
There, the technology went from your dentist taking an X ray and having to run the film to a lab to develop it, dry the print and put it on a light box, to today's instantaneous Xray vision on a screen which can be digitally sliced and diced to track in full colour the insides of your teeth and compare it with previous pics. Already there are devices attached to muzzles and head restraints, ready to drill and grind better holes than the most steady handed professionals. Meanwhile the FDA is still considering whether digital records need to be backed up with analog X rays.
Doctors have signed up for cancer tracking computer programs (using digital scanner records) while the bureaucrats are years behind, because they know that it offers their patients a better chance of surviving.
So while the FAA huffs and puffs, I expect new civilian uses will emerge come what may. My money is on agriculture being a leader -- agronomists can now use digital imagery of vineyards to see which individual vine is under-performing to give it extra squirts of pesticide or fertilizer or whatever. Costs a fortune from a helicopter but there are already firms springing up in France using Parrot-like near-toys to do the same, telling any nosy sorts they are just following model air-craft regulations.

Posted by: John Patson | May 16, 2014 9:41 AM    Report this comment

What I see is that the FAA is concentrating its resources on fighting a losing battle over the commercial use of UAVs by regulating them without regulations, a realistic oxymoron if there ever was one, while what the FAA should be doing is working hard to put together workable regulations, run them through the rule making process, and implementing them on a timely basis. The idea that it will take 3 or 7 years (depending on who prognosticates the process) for final rules to be created and in place is ridiculous, but the more time is wasted on the Pirker case and other similar misguided efforts to regulate commercial UAV use without any actual regulations will surely delay proper regulations.

So if there's any advice about UAV regulation that the FAA needs to accept, I think it would be "quit spinning wheels and get busy!"

Posted by: Cary Alburn | May 16, 2014 9:54 AM    Report this comment

Parrot is not the only company selling small drones. Go to your favorite search engine and search for "10 best drones you can buy". The videos produced by some of these companies are really amazing.

Posted by: Reid Sayre | May 16, 2014 10:00 AM    Report this comment

Aerial Cameras - This term is being used in a rapidly growing business environment. I've not heard the words drone or UAV used. There are many new businesses operating in SoCal that will sell these to anyone, and also build custom devices, depending on a customer's needs. I have one, and they are great fun.

The one I bought comes as a complete package, an electric quad-copter with wireless operated camera, either HD video or 14 Mp stills. It is remarkable what can be built with a few hundred bucks of modern electronic gear. The flight system has inputs from GPS, compass, altimeter, and inertial motion sensors. You can position it in the air at an altitude in excess of 1,500' and it will keep itself at that location, to quite close tolerances, regardless crosswinds, etc. It is capable of 25 minutes of flight time, then you can slip in another battery and go back up. If you do not pay attention to time, the flight system will automatically fly itself home to its take-off location when the battery drops to a low limit. If the flight system loses contact with the controlling transmitter it will fly itself home. The response of the flight system to loss of signal is well thought out. It puts itself into a hover, climbs 60 meters, flys at whatever altitude that is, to the home location, lowers itself vertically to 10 feet height and waits there for about a minute. If signal is not re-acquired, it slowly lowers itself and shuts the motors off when it contacts the ground. Very cool. Better than the autopilot in my plane.

Meanwhile, I can see what the camera sees on an iPhone or any number of tablets. I can change camera modes and activate filming or still shots. The screen also shows me the altitude, airspeed, battery condition, an attitude indicator and the number of GPS satellites accessed (needs 6).

With only 4 rotors, my platform cannot cope with the total loss of one motor but will try to get itself home with a partial loss. Hex rotors can, and do, cope with the loss of 2 motors.

The FAA is way behind what is going on in the real world now, and if it takes until 2020 to have regulations, it will be dealing with systems that have not yet been invented. Good luck with that.

Posted by: Edd Weninger | May 16, 2014 11:12 AM    Report this comment

And, I should add, if you happen to lose it in woods or something, it transmits its GPS location until the batteries die out. You can find the location graphically on the iPhone and walk, or whatever, to recover it. Better than some airlines.

Posted by: Edd Weninger | May 16, 2014 11:20 AM    Report this comment

Having attended AUVSI for the past 8 years and sitting in the annual FAA session on UAV integration in the NAS, the "rules" are always 8-10 years out. From what I can see the FAA has made zero progress other than the emergency COAs law enforcement can apply for, which still does not address immediate need operations. Rather than get ahead of the technology with sensible rules, the FAA now finds itself very far behind the exploding consumer/commerical use of these small, inexpensive UAVs. Perhaps something as simple as ceding the airspace below 500 feet AGL and over 1 mile from an airport would put everyone (pilots and UAV operators) on equal terms about what to expect if you venture into that region. Selling UAVs with an altitude limiter is easy enought with the technology already being used, and certifying them for the altitude compliance would be a simple process. If you want to go higher than 500 feet, then you need to start looking like an aircraft and be equipped for see and avoid (high intensity strobe lights and/or ADS-B out for example). In the end the commerical users (realtors, farmers, media) will demand the congress take action directly and impose rules on the FAA. Just look at the 3rd class medical situation if you want to see where this foot dragging is going.

Posted by: John Salak | May 16, 2014 2:04 PM    Report this comment

John, thanks for commenting. What did you think of what Jim Williams had to say?

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | May 17, 2014 9:40 AM    Report this comment

Let's not miss the opportunity here. Our alphabets should call for immediate rules requiring a commercial license for all commercial activities. Perhaps then the silliness of defining safety needs based on what is usually flights losing only slightly less money than private ones would be apparent. While we are at it, if you can't see your bird, that's hard IFR, buddy. Just say'n.

More seriously, a total revamp is needed, so let's use this as an opportunity to start over before all the money to be made moves off shore.

Lastly, Paul, I got the impression that the a AUVSI was another alphabet which in no time at all structured itself to make profit (for its employees at least) rather than progress. Should I be less skeptical?

Posted by: Eric Warren | May 19, 2014 8:37 AM    Report this comment

"Should I be less skeptical?"


Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | May 19, 2014 1:03 PM    Report this comment

From an old retired airline pilot. Overlooking the Constitutional issues I have to believe the genie is out of the bottle and cannot be put back in... sooooo let the small drones alone with nothing more than a 200' AGL limit and keep them 5 miles from an airport. Give pilots a pass on 'see and be seen' in the event of a collision (if the pilot survives) since you can't see the little drones anyhow and allow the airplane's survivors or family to sue. And get it done quickly - this ain't rocket surgery. Cap'n John

Posted by: John Snidow | May 21, 2014 12:21 PM    Report this comment

AUVSI is for the most part a military technology conference that covers unmanned ground, underwater, surface (water), and airborne vehicles. The conference sessions and exhibits are mainly technical with some policy discussions thrown in to show how far the technology has outpaced policy. I actually see a lot of technology that was developed for unmanned operations that would greatly advance general aviation safety (UAV autoland and optical see and avoid for example), but for the incredibly slow and expensive certification process. The FAA started with wanting a uniform set of rules through the ICAO process, which apparently really does take 10 years to get something done. Good idea, but in the mean time the technology curve bent the cost down and capabilities up to where anyone of reasonable means can buy and operate a UAV only the military could afford a few years ago. For whatever reason the FAA is trying to split hairs on commercial vs. hobby use of the same UAV equipment. OK for the model airplane guys to fly and take pictures, but if you sell the photo there is a big fine waiting. Your congressman understands the model airplane guys and knows not to mess with that group, those UAV/drone things well not so much. At the end of the day, these small UAVs should be looked at as birds because they pose exactly the same problem for pilots operating a low altitudes. Last time I checked, the FAA did not regulate bird operations, much as they would like to.

Posted by: John Salak | May 21, 2014 3:08 PM    Report this comment

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