Is A Drone Pilot Civil Disobedience Movement Brewing?

The tone of this article is not necessarily directed at any individual within the FAA. It’s more along the lines of an overall condemnation of the process and the bureaucracy that totally kinks the colon of most commercial UAS operators. It’s also based on the pent up frustration of 107 Pilots that is threatening to boil over and get ugly.

And actually many of us (Commercial Drone Pilots) have spoken and interacted with some great people within both the FAA hierarchy itself, as well as those in waiver/authorization office. They understand our frustration.

So, is there already civil disobedience brewing?

I wouldn’t be too surprised if it’s already here. As a matter of fact if you consider that many Remote Pilots are already flying some missions without official airspace authorization via the portal, then it has already started. And yes, I’m one of those pilots.

How have I violated that “official” permission? I’ve flown with a wink and a nod as a “101 operator” with full knowledge of ATC personnel that it was a commercial operation. They understood that if I didn’t take the gig, someone else would that probably won’t have my training and loss-link procedures in place. And they definitely won’t notify ATC that they’re flying. That particular ATC understands that the FUBAR Portal system (JO 7200.23) has actually made their airspace less safe. And they know that I am a safe-to-a-fault pilot. So based on our history, and their knowledge of my operations, they were perfectly fine violating procedure to ensure the safety of their airspace. And yes, that is technically legal permission according to 107.

I hesitate to use the Rosa Parks analogy, because our issue doesn’t come close in comparison, but darn it, we’re tired of sitting in the back of the bus while illegal operators take our work, and hobbyists basically fly unimpeded.

The AMA is directly responsible for the perceived lack of regulations for 101 operators. And that’s not an accusation; they did exactly what they were supposed to do. They used their lobbying power to protect their members, and I applaud them for that. However, I’m not sure they fully understood what was going to happen to their hobby. Heck, I’m not sure anyone did in 2011. I know the FAA certainly didn’t. So we can’t lay all the blame on the AMA for this. Their were the catalyst, but hold little blame. It’s the FMRA of 2012 that holds the majority of the blame.

And if we dig even deeper, we see what holds not only the actual blame for the broken system that impedes our businesses, but makes the skies unsafe as well. And we all know we’re talking about Airspace/Waiver Portal created by the FAA, and enforced via JO7200.23.

So who’s planning on participating in this act of civil disobedience, and how will they do it?

Obviously the 107 Pilots will (and are), but a couple of little birdies told me that there are also two other big players who have thrown their hats in the civil disobedience ring. And these players will surprise most of you.

Player number one is busy airports. Yes, some airports have basically given up on the FAA. They have approached an airspace mapping company and asked them to use their platform to create an autonomous application for commercial UAS operations approval. The airports want to be able to approve 107 pilots themselves.

This is in direct opposition with what the FAA says about why they created the portal system. They say the airports don’t want to deal with 107 Pilots because they don’t have time. Which I guess would be the reason for airports wanting an autonomous app. But even so, if airports were willing to take time away from their ATC duties to implement an app for their airspace, certainly they’d be willing to spend some time on the phone talking to 107 Pilots that want to fly in that airspace until that app is ready. If so, Heather Hendel needs to rescind or amend JO7200.23.

Player number 2 is a certain Senior ATC District Director that has also lost all confidence in the FUBAR Portal system. He is looking into the feasibility of appointing one staff member to take care of all airspace requests for the airports under his command. If this happens, and it is successful, will other ATC districts follow suit? Probably. We wish him the best of luck possible.

And now, what about more 107 Pilots jumping on the bandwagon?

The FAA has given us the responsibility to use our knowledge to do our part in keeping the NAS safe. But in reality, they’re just like the old guy in the Allstate commercial that holds the dollar bill on a fishing pole, just out of reach of the gal wanting her discount. “I gotcha a dollar… Ooh, you’ve got to be quicker than that…”. The FAA is the guy holding the pole (JO7200.23 and the portal), and we’re the gal who just wants our discount (to fly safe). It’s almost time for us to jump that old guy, knock his arrogant arse on the ground, and rip the dollar off his stupid fishing pole.

I’m not advocating a free-for-all, far from it. I’m simply suggesting that we use our knowledge of the airspace and decide for ourselves if the specifics of a flight are safe. For instance, those roof inspections at 50’AGL, ¼ mile inside Delta airspace, I’d say go for it. You and I both know it’s 100% safe.

Do you have a real estate shoot in Echo srfc? Is there a 370’ tall castle shaped rock between you and the airport assigned to that airspace? Go for it. You and I know that is also 100% safe.

Why should we have to wait for the FAA to lower the fishing pole so we can grab our dollar?

Conversely, do you have a shoot 1 mile from the end of a runway at 250’AGL? Well obviously that’s not safe so don’t fly that one. And while you’re at it, take a few moments and educate your client as to why you won’t fly it. If we don’t take that extra couple of minutes, they just may hire someone else to fly it that doesn’t have our training. Not only is it our responsibility to fly safe, we need our clients to understand why we must fly safe at all times. That way we’re going above and beyond our responsibility of keeping the NAS safe. The FAA isn’t in the position to do this, so we must!

Okay, what can the FAA do to head off this impending civil disobedience? Probably not much at this point in time. Even if they could come up with a plan, the glacial speed at which they move would do nothing to prevent the ever-growing frustration from festering into a full-blown revolt. But I’ll give them some ideas just the same. I don’t like people that just complain and don’t offer a resolution. That’s just venting, and not helpful at all.

Idea 1: Be transparent. Tell us what’s going on. We know you have a lot to do, and we sympathize with those trying to do it. But give us some info about the “why” and “how” of what’s going on. That would go a long way to giving us some peace of mind. We’re reasonable people, and may even have ideas on how to help.

Idea 2: Rescind JO7200.23. That’s a procedural order, and doesn’t take 6 months to implement. Give airports the option to grant permission. They can even set the rules. For instance, calls must be 24 hours in advance, or only certain times, or UAS POCs must be the only ones giving out permissions. And if an airport feels it’s too busy to deal with us, fine. They can tell us so. This community of 107 Pilots is extremely close knit, and that knowledge will be disseminated among local pilots pretty darn quick.

Idea 3: Release the UASFMs. That information alone would give 107 Pilots all the information they need to fly safe in the congested airspace near airports, especially if they file DROTAMs that follow those AGL limits. We know the stated reason you won’t release them. You say they’re still changing. Well, Sectionals change all the time too. And if there is another better reason, see Idea 1. I know that’s in the works, and is supposed to happen soon. But speed it up and help us help you.

Idea 4: Enforce existing rules against illegal operators. Enforce Federal Preemption (assist Dr. Singer is his case against Newton, MA). Prosecute someone who shoots down a drone (I STRONGLY suggest starting with Mr. Merideth, AKA The Droneslayer). Show us that you’re in our corner, instead of seeing us as the enemy. And maybe you don’t really see us as the enemy, but that is the perception of the vast majority of 107 Pilots. And perception is reality these days.

If there is a continued growth of fed-up and civilly disobedient 107 Pilots, the blame will fall directly on the FAA’s shoulders. But if that movement fizzles and dries up, that will turn to praise and will just as easily be heaped directly onto those same shoulders. At this point, this situation can go either way. And personally, I’m leaning towards disobedience, both actively and looking into the future.

The ball is in your court FAA. What would you like us to do? Believe it or not, we will gladly listen. But we’ll listen to your silence too. And in that case, silence will be deafening. And that silence can quite possibly be disastrous to your future control of UAS operations. And no one wants that, really we don’t.

And 107 Pilots, if you do join the league of civilly disobedient flyers, do so with safety as the utmost and final prime decision influencer. After all, safety is the number one priority of all of our missions. If you’re not 100% sure of the safety of the mission, don’t fly it. If you do, you’re not being civilly disobedient; you’re just being disobedient. And that’s just plain stupid.

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