Christmas Droneophobia


Like spilled red wine soaking into a white tablecloth, the meme that we live in an age of fear seems to be an indelible idea. I would like to state two things for the record, however. One, I think that whatever fear exists is mostly a product of hysterical cable news coverage. And second, speaking personally, I am not fearful, not of a terrorist attack, not of a mass shooting, not of a government shutdown and certainly not of being whacked by a drone. (Nice segue there, no?)

As the Christmas buying frenzy ramps up, the fairly recent and by now evidently perennial fear of drones seems to have its own season. At NBAA last month, for a reason I can’t seem to recall, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta told the assembled biz folks that as many as 700,000 drones will be sold by Christmas. It could just as well be 1.2 million or 200,000. Nobody really has a clue because nobody tracks this stuff with confidence. But just any large number tossed out there does the job of igniting mindless fear. Oh, now I remember why Huerta brought it up. He was talking about the FAA’s regulatory activities and if, in the process, he convinced a few Gulfstream operators to string chicken wire over their windshields and inlets, where’s the harm? (Can I see the STC for that, please?)

Here at AVweb, we do our bit to feed the fear, albeit quite inadvertently. A couple of weeks ago, someone sent me a link to this report (PDF). It was done by a company calledAeroKinetics and purports, through careful analysis, to claim that the risk of drones to aircraft is greater than that represented by birdstrikes. To call the tone of the report shrill is to engage in generous understatement. I especially liked the device of calling these aircraft Toy Drones, cap T and cap D. For those readers teetering on the edge of drone apoplexy, that ought to bump them over the precipice. And by the way, my guess is that the aim of that report is to build street cred for grant money for the FAA’s ASSURE program. Expect to see more like it. It’s another example of how private enterprise makes hay on regulation that drives the rest of us nuts.

Now a little inside baseball. Around here, the AVweb newsteam usually operates independently of my sticky fingers. I sometimes assign things, I approve everything but we have a sort of church and state thing going on; church being straight news, state being opinion and commentary in this space. I didn’t send the newsteam the AeroKinetics report because I saw it as intentionally biased to generate fear in the way the Australian study I wrote about previously does not. It needed leavening with other source data.I wondered if we would pick it up. We did, complete with the headline that drones are more dangerous than birds. Sigh.

This is, of course, ridiculous on its face because the report misses one critical and central point: It doesn’t measure the likelihood of a drone strike compared to a bird strike, it just posits—fairly, I guess—that drones might damage an aircraft more than a bird would by dint of weight and density. The data appears to come from the Australian study, but that research doesn’t leap to the same conclusions. And all of the calcs are theoretical, not empirical. The FAA is supposed to do an empirical impact study sometime this year or next.

There are something like 10 to 20 billion birds in the U.S. according to the U.S. wildlife agencies. At 700,000 a year, drones will reach parity no sooner than 10,000 years from now. Unless, of course, David Wartofsky’s MicroTower achieves The Singularity and starts building 100,000 drones per second. In that case, I take it all back.

Before I finished this blog, I suspect there were one or two birdstrikes in the U.S., seeing as how there are about 10,000 or more a year. Most are inconsequential, but birdstrikes cause a lot of damage worldwide—in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Interestingly, bird populations are on the rise and so are reported strikes. Number of drone strikes in the civilian realm? Zero. So any way you examine it, the birdstrike risk is many orders of magnitude higher than the drone strike risk and will probably remain so for years. And when the first manned aircraft drone collision occurs—and it will—that won’t alter the risk at all.

As Christmas Droneageddon is upon us, the FAA has seized the opportunity to again demonstrate its prowess at the fine art of non-execution. It had proposed that all drones weighing more than 250 grams or a half pound be registered and assigned a number. Not a bad idea, but the Christmas buying season is already in full swing and registration isn’t set up yet. My guess is it won’t be for some time. Furthermore, the FAA announced last spring an interactive app called B4UFLY. It’s a geo-referenced utility that can give would-be drone operators information on local airspace and restrictions and give a simple red or green symbol for flight. Another good idea. But, you guessed it, it’s not available either, with Christmas two weeks out. It’s still in Beta, apparently. I signed up for the Beta test, but I guess I wasn’t deemed worthy.

The registration idea has gotten a lot of criticism, some of it warranted, but I like the idea for several reasons. One, it puts the buyer on notice that he or she has responsibilities in operating a drone and the activity needs to be taken seriously. Certain knowledge and awareness is required and the typical Amazon shopper probably doesn’t know that. Second (and third) it provides a channel for the FAA to push out safety and education notices and, where warranted, enforce if it tracks and finds an errant drone flying where it shouldn’t. Are these things, taken together, likely to be effective? Who knows? Perhaps not, but it’s the least onerous approach I can think of to address droneophobia without stifling the industry in the process. But the FAA will have to take it seriously and follow up on education and enforcement.

A couple of weeks ago, we published a survey asking readers if they would register their drones. Of the 256 people who replied, 50 percent said they likely would not register. That, my friends, is civil disobedience on an industrial scale. I can think of a short list of FARs I think really ought to be just for the little people and certainly not for me, but I still adhere to them. I plan to do the same with drone registration. I just hope that when the FAA finally gets the registration system running, it will be simple and expedient.

I’m also hoping Santa puts a TBM 900 under my tree. Which do you think is more likely to happen?