Commentary. The FAA has published a new drone sightings report, seemingly designed to defend their efforts to crack down on “rogue drones” and implement more draconian regulations on recreational and hobby drones. Analysts are split on whether or not the reports are accurate: stakeholders argue about the real danger drones pose. Regardless of the list’s accuracy, what the report really indicates is the total failure of regulations – including drone registration – as a tool to keep drones out of airport space and at safe altitude.
The FAA report lists 582 incidents between August 2015 and January 2016. The 582 incidents include a huge variety of sightings. Those describing a specific drone in detail by a pilot, and complaining of a 20 foot “near miss” – a legitimate complaint, if true – are weighted exactly the same as an incident in which the reporting pilot admits that the object “could have been a balloon.” Nonetheless, the FAA describes them all as “dangerous, illegal activity” and threatens harsh penalties:
Reports of unmanned aircraft (UAS) sightings from pilots, citizens and law enforcement have increased dramatically over the past two years. The FAA now receives more than 100 such reports each month. The agency wants to send out a clear message that operating drones around airplanes, helicopters and airports is dangerous and illegal. Unauthorized operators may be subject to stiff fines and criminal charges, including possible jail time… The FAA has levied civil penalties for a number of unauthorized flights in various parts of the country, and has many open enforcement cases. The FAA encourages the public to report unauthorized drone operations to local law enforcement and to help discourage this dangerous, illegal activity.
Members of the drone industry, like manufacturing giant DJI, object to the characterization. The company has been heavily involved in efforts to give the industry a voice in regulation, participating in the FAA’s drone registration task force and the “Know B4 You Fly” program; but it is wary of consistent efforts by the FAA to use drone sightings to feed into public perception of drones as dangerous. “Keeping the skies safe is DJI’s top priority, and we firmly believe drones are a valuable addition to the airspace for both commercial and recreational purposes,” said Brendan Schulman, DJI’s Vice President of Policy and Legal Affairs in a statement. “The FAA’s latest list of unverified reports includes many instances where pilots and people on the ground simply mentioned seeing drones in the air. We want to ensure the public and policymakers put these reports in context with the millions of flight hours that drones safely navigate through airspace for businesses, farms, hobbyists, photographers and government agencies. Many of those drones have helped save lives in situations involving fires, floods, and missing people.”
Not only do drone sightings inaccurately described as “near misses” feed in to public fears, they have been used repeatedly by FAA representatives in Congressional testimony and elsewhere as an excuse for greater and greater regulation. In October 2015, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta testified before the Senate subcommittee that a drone registration program was necessary to deal with “…an increase in reports of unmanned aircraft coming too close to airplanes and airports, from interfering with wildfire fighting in California to crashing into a stadium during a U.S. Open tennis match.” Those reports have been used in almost every speech that Huerta delivers, as evidence that drones are a serious and urgent safety risk, and require more time and money to regulate. Lawmakers, and much of the public, have bought into the argument.
But the drone sightings report, which outlines over 100 incidents since the drone registration program was implemented, demonstrates clearly that drone registration has failed utterly to actually prevent operators from flying at altitudes over 400 feet or within 5 miles of airports. The much touted 400,000 registrations (representing less than half of the reported number of drones sold during the holiday season, not to mention those owned prior to December 2015) and the “Know B4 You Fly” program have not sufficed to educate drone operators effectively. Threats of penalties, notices to law enforcement, and exaggerated reporting haven’t helped. Operators who either do not know the law or choose to flout it will not be deterred by regulation.
If drones do pose a threat to aircraft – that’s another argument – then safety should be automated rather than left to the goodwill of often young and inexperienced drone operators. The technology exists: in addition to the collision avoidance technology standard with the new Phantom 4, DJI introduced it’s geofencing feature last year, which would automatically prohibit a drone using factory settings from flying in restricted areas. This may not be a perfect solution – critics complain that commercial operators with a legitimate reason for flying may have to override the settings – but it would almost certainly be more effective than just telling drone operators not to do it. “We are trying to be at the forefront of drone safety,” Adam Lisberg, Corporate Communications Director of DJI North America, tells DRONELIFE. “We are certainly not ignorant of public concern… But we think it makes far more sense to come up with good, smart technology solutions than to place barriers before an industry that has potential to do tremendous good.”
A myriad of defensive technologies, like those jamming drone signals around sensitive areas, are being tested all the time. A technology solution to the perceived drone threat is an elegant fix: it takes care of the problem using a scalpel instead of a sledgehammer, avoiding the unintended and industry stifling consequences of overregulation.
The drone industry and the defense industry are capable of innovation to solve the problem of drones near airplanes reasonably, cheaply, and effectively. The FAA should shift its focus away from more ineffective and increasingly burdensome regulatory programs to testing preventative technology and establishing a standard for its use.
Miriam McNabb is the Editor-in-Chief of DRONELIFE and CEO of JobForDrones, a professional drone services marketplace, and a fascinated observer of the emerging drone industry and the regulatory environment for drones. Miriam has a degree from the University of Chicago and over 20 years of experience in high tech sales and marketing for new technologies.
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