Mr. President, Can I Get My DJI Back?


I bet the Maalox was gurgling away at 800 Independence Ave. on Monday when the news broke that the Secret Service found an errant drone on the White House grounds. Fortunately, the impending blizzard that’s going to kill everyone in the northeast pushed the story below the fold, but I’m sure the FAA phones were ringing at some level with this question: What are you gonna do about this?

Well, what are you gonna do, FAA? The agency has never been good at integrating, reacting to and managing technology that emerges at a moderate pace. It continues to be paralyzed by rapidly evolving small-drone technology because the only thing it understands-enforcement-based regulation-simply won’t work to manage whatever threat small drones represent. In desperation, it’s reaching out to local police departments to act as posses, reporting what the FAA thinks are illegal flights of drones. I wonder how much interest and cooperation they’ll get with that.

Monday’s incident is illustrative of the challenge the FAA faces on several levels. First of all, the drone’s owner, a government employee, told NBC news he was testing the UAS to see how it performed in poor weather-a little impromptu IFR if you will. He was doing this within sight of the White House at 3 a.m. Call me crazy, but I don’t think this is a good plan, not so much because of any real risk to anyone, but on the appearance of being, well, stupid. So we have the problem of judgment.

Second, that little drone-a DJI Phantom II by the looks of the photo-has RTH or return to home, so that was either not in play or failed to function if it lost link. Maybe, as Pete Conrad said when Apollo 12 took a lightning hit, we need a little more all-weather testing. Whatever the case, flight testing a quad at that time of the morning near 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. is just pushing it. People lose drones by the dozens every day, RTH or not.

For as clueless as the FAA is in confronting this rising challenge, the body politic is worse: How about this New York Times quote from everyone’s favorite I-never-met-a-regulation-I-didn’t-like Senator, New York’s Charles Schumer. “Drones are an important new technology that will boost businesses, aid in storm preparedness and recovery, assist agricultural development and more. But rules to protect the safety and privacy of the American people must keep pace, and I am calling on the FAA and OMB to get these long-delayed regulations on the books.”

The honorable Senator misses the point that commercial drones aren’t the perceived or actual problem, consumer-grade products are. A guy who’s doing stealth flight test at 3 a.m. isn’t going to give a rat’s butt about what regulation he may or may not be breaking and the FAA will be snoozing away while he does it. And Schumer has no idea what’s coming. Brad Hayden, who’s developing a drone repair network, told me that at CES, there were already Chinese companies knocking off DJI drones, which is itself a Chinese company.

So what to do here? Forget the FAA trying to police low-altitude, consumer-drone operation and forget getting the local gendarmes to help. They have better things to do. I think the FAA should just surrender the airspace below a certain altitude, say 250 feet. In that space, they should be legislatively stripped of any regulatory authority. Whatever goes on there, goes on. Let local authorities deal with the privacy or noise issues and let the courts sort out any constitutional issues. (“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms and operate drones shall not be infringed.”)

If accountability is wanted-and I don’t think that’s a bad idea-then require serial numbers on drones and register them like motor vehicles. If you harm something or somebody, you’re on the hook for civil damages. And as for the FAA protecting the freckled-neck masses from getting bopped by two-pound drones, forget it. We all live in a rapidly evolving technological society with risks. One of them might be the slight chance of getting crowned by a DJI. So don’t go outside. Or buy a helmet. Just don’t hope for the FAA to lend you an umbrella.

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