Are Drone Fines Progress?


When it comes to drones—talking about them, writing about them, filming them or considering them in almost any context—I think hysteria is still the standard condition. Even we reported last month that a million of the damn things could be given as Christmas gifts.

The source of this was Rich Swayze, who told an Airlines for America event that he had heard “from several sources” that as many a million drones could fly from the shelves for holidays. Nothing like the FAA stoking fears with unsubstantiated anecdotal reports of swarms on the horizon, to the airline industry no less.

I remain unperturbed and I actually believe that the world in general and aviation specifically is beginning to get a grip on drone phobia. There are still pockets of panic, but in general, I think we’re starting to get used to it. One thing I take heart in is that the FAA showed the gumption to actually levy a fine against an operator it believed was flying drones illegally in New York’s Class B airspace. The company, SkyPan, was fined $1.9 million and we’ll now wait to see if the case sticks. Whether or does or doesn’t is less important, in my view, than the fact that FAA is getting some visibility on enforcement with a big dollar number. That, along with a vigorous education campaign, may help to tamp down at least some drone flight activity occurring where it really shouldn’t be.

We’ve also reported that an analysisby the Academy of Model Aeronautics revealed that only 3.5 percent of the 764 drone “sightings” the FAA reported represented genuine near collision threats; the rest were just nuisance noise in the data. Even at that, the risk that drones represent to manned aircraft remains largely unknown. The FAA has begun a research study to determine potential collision damage and I already reported on one such study. (Recall that earlier this week I allowed as how legislators and FAA officials often operate on perception rather than fact and some of us in aviation do the same. We should stop.)

Meanwhile, in California, more encouraging news. Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a bill that would have made it a crime to fly drones over wildfires, prisons and schools. The drone bill was among a trio of similar proposed laws and in vetoing them, Brown said this: “Each of these bills creates a new crime—usually by finding a novel way to characterize and criminalize conduct that is already proscribed. This multiplication and particularization of criminal behavior creates increasing complexity without commensurate benefit.” You can’t say it much simpler than that and all once, Brown pushed back against both drone hysteria and the natural human tendency to regulate every fear out of existence. Some people say he did this out of political expediency, since the drone industry has manufacturing and technological roots in California. Maybe, but Brown has proven to be a rancher with a smaller herd of sacred cows than most governors I know about. Continuing the cattle analogy, he’s refused to joint the anti-drone stampede.

Not to get too woozy about this, the FAA still continues to drag on development and implementation of drone regulations for commercial operations. Earlier this month, the agency told Congress that June of next year seems realistic for final regs on commercial operations. The fact that the agency’s Michael Whitaker told Congress “we should be able to beat that” is almost a guarantee that they won’t. Bets on getting it done anytime during 2016? My book on it is 3 to 2.

But never mind; the directionality here is right. At least one state has pushed back on criminalization of drone flying and the FAA has shown it will enforce on the most egregious examples of drone operations and is at least oozing in the direction of getting regulations in place.

Yeah, it should have been done two years ago and yeah it won’t be perfect out of the box, but at least we’re getting there. I’ll take it, thanks.