UAVs: Chafing (Rightfully) Against Regulation


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

Both of us got a good laugh at one thing thats 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 wasnt 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 havent seen in GA since, oh, I dunno, the day after Lindbergh landed in Paris. Its infectious but also oddly virginal, unspoiled by the forces of doom. And that, of course, will be the FAA, whose ability-or inability–to rapidly develop workable rules for UAS hangs like a cloud over the entire industry. But heres the interesting part: Most of the people in this industry arent pilots, theyre 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 whos in their court, diligently working to develop rules that will allow the industry to flourish. If that sounds like naivet unblemished by the reality of actually having to deal with FAAs sclerotic, bloated bureaucracy, it probably is. But from talking to people on the show floor, I have to admit that its 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 its delay, delay, delay. And so it was that Jim Williams, head of the FAAs UAS office, said rules for small unmanned systems will be delayed and its likely to be at least another two years before they appear. For larger UAS, it will be longer than that.

Im 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 Im going to guess it wont 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 its 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 doesnt 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 dont accommodate an industry thats moving at the speed of light. GA is a turtle-and a sick one at that-the 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. Im 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 dont know about the rest of the press, but the terminology in this industry gives me heartburn. I dont like to call them drones because the connotation isnt precisely right. Some people in the industry use the term, but most dont. Its analogous to calling flight data recorders black boxes, a term thats entirely an invention of the press. No one in the industry actually uses it.

So Ive taken to using the terms UAS or UAV. UAS-unmanned aircraft system(s)-is the umbrella term while UAV-unmanned aerial vehicle-can apply to aircraft in the singular. Or the plural. I throw an occasional drone in there for variety, but Im fighting the urge. Drones are either male honeybees or objects used as targets. UAVs are neither.

Hows This For Irony?

Looking over the show press guidelines, I noticed a provision that said journalists couldnt use video cameras or lighting systems on the floor. Really? Thats 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 dont like to have their pictures taken.

Thats rich. Heres an entire industry devoted to snooping and invasion of privacy, but theyre 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.

Its basically a flying camera-1080p and 14mp with a wide fisheye lens-using 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. Theres 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 heres the killer feature: The Bebops camera is electronically, not mechanical gyro, stabilized. Thats 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 Parrots previous product, the AR.Drone, sold for about $300. So take your guess on what this one will cost. Im 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 whats 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 didnt hear any complaints about the gate fee, however, because this crowd is as serious and purposeful as any Ive seen anywhere in aviation, including NBAA. As with all shows, its 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, theyll 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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