A funding suggestion for the FAA

It might be time for increased enforcement within the s/UAS industry.

DAC Meeting — January 31, 2017

After attending the 2nd Drone Advisory Committee (DAC) meeting on January 31st, I came away with an idea I think could help the 3rd subcommittee achieve at least one of its goals; identifying what funding mechanisms should be utilized to help advance the interests of safety and growth in the s/UAS industry.

Before getting into it, I think it’s worth mentioning that there were a lot of smart and insightful attendees at this meeting. Myself being a relative industry newbie doesn’t add a lot of weight to what I write here and naturally, everyone had their owns interests at heart, but the general consensus I picked up was twofold;

1) The continued safe integration of UAS and sUAS into the National Airspace System (NAS) is not going to be easy, but is still a central ambition.

2) It’s important for many service, software, hardware and equipment manufactures that any future regulations the FAA adopts don’t hinder industry growth.

These two general goals aren’t necessarily new. And a few unnamed individuals privately admitted the meeting felt fairly pointless in absence of any substantive proposals or recommendations from the subcommittees. But for me, it’s hard to feel too sour on the heals of Part 107. While not perfect regulation standards, it’s still light years beyond what existed before August 29, 2016.

Maybe by the 3rd DAC meeting in May, if there is nothing meaningful proposed, then feeling jaded could be warranted. But that’s in May, so there’s still time to figure things out.

In the meantime, let me offer a public suggestion to both the FAA and industry organizations that represent commercial drone pilots:

If the FAA started enforcing it’s own regulations more adamantly, it could generate supplemental income to help advance the interests of the s/UAS industry (e.g. grant waivers faster), while also shielding the industry from those reckless enough to threaten it’s well-being.

As of February 1st, 2017, the ratio of online commercial drone registrations (i.e. certified remote pilots and remaining 333 exemption holders registering their drones) to registered hobby-use drones is roughly 1:15. That means for every drone being used for commercial purposes, there are 15 drones that were registered for hobby use.

Here’s the slide where this data was derived from: http://imgur.com/a/T3gpK

This covers a lot of drones.

And we’re just talking about the drones that have been registered in the United States. If we do the math:

$5 x (656,776+41,718+6,651) = $3,525,725
($5 is the registration fee charged per person for hobby use and per drone for commercial use by the FAA)

The FAA first opened up the web-based registration for model unmanned aircraft owners on Dec. 21, 2015. In just over one year of operation, collecting roughly $3.5m is a decent chunk of change. It’s a drop in the bucket compared to the $15.83b budget of the entire FAA, but still…$3.5m can, at least in theory, pay for equipment and the yearly salary of at least 30–40 people.

And here’s the crux of my suggestion/proposal…

Why not start an enforcement arm of the FAA, specficially for s/UAS operations?

Maybe best not to yell though. Image © 1993 Warner Bros.

Or if not an official “enforcement division”, what about simply going after obvious misuse and reckless behavior using existing means?

The FAA Compliance and Enforcement Program Handbook (FAA Order 2150.3B) does offer insights into what the FAA can do. It mentions 5 types of actions the FAA typically uses to enforce the existing regulations and standards:

  • Administrative action
  • Re-examination
  • Certificate action
  • Civil penalty
  • Criminal action

According to James Insco of K&L Gates LLP; “for unmanned aircraft operations, the FAA seems to favor administrative actions (generally in the form of cease-and-desist orders) and civil penalties.

One can spend countless days finding examples of “illegal” flight activities on social media sites like Facebook and Instagram. Here’s a recent one that caught my eye:

This would appear well beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS).

(Shameless plug: Please feel free to read the second half of my Dr. Dronelove post from last month for more examples.)

So why not get more serious about taking administrative actions and assessing penalties?

Hopefully, you get the point I’m making.

There are tons of examples of people posting and even praising one another for both knowingly and unknowingly violating current regulations or pushing their drones to an extreme. And yet, the FAA only selectively goes after companies that blatantly disregard the rules of commercial flight. Case and point: the SkyPan International case.

Side note: I do wonder why the FAA let SkyPan settle for $200K/$1.9m = ~10% of the proposed fine? I’m not aware of the granular details of the case, but what kind of message does that send? Even if SkyPan agreed to issue 3 PSAs, it’s not like the company took any of the infringing content off their website ;)

If funding is indeed an issue for the FAA, why not hire two or three or four full-time “enforcement officials” to work exclusively on warning and levying fines against illegal drone usage? And I’m not only talking about enforcing legal commercial flight, but hobbyist’s equally.

There would be two main benefits in doing so:

  1. The FAA makes $ from the fines. Yes, it might be a trivial amount, but you know what’s better than zero dollars…$1,000 dollars for the general fund for flying over a freeway.
  2. Fines and enforcement discourage both the extreme and illegal uses of drones.
It’s like killing two birds with one drone. (Terrible pun, I know, I know)

Regarding the second point, I’m not so naïve as to think people will stop using drones outside of the scope of the current regulations. But at least if enforcement is increased, maybe they won’t brag about it as much. And just maybe it will discourage others from trying to fly their drone way beyond visual line of site or in restricted airspace or directly over a freeway or well above 400ft AGL.

This shot is obviously well above 400ft.

Your car is capable of going well over the speed limit. And sometimes it’s actually important that it be able to do so when evasive maneuvers need to be taken. But if you’re driving at 90mph, the police will pull you over and issue you a ticket. Why? Because it’s illegal. And it’s been shown that as speed limits increase, so do speed-related deaths. So why shouldn’t reckless drone flying be enforced in a similar way? The evidence of wrong-doing is all over the internet.

The industry is still young, yet after swarms are used at Disneyland and the Super Bowl (even if their performance was pre-recorded), drones are no longer novelty items. With 650,000+ registered hobby users, many owning more than one drone, they’re definitely no longer novelty items.

Should the regulations be more relaxed? I’ll admit to leaning toward yes. But if they are, then enforcement will be even more important.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments below. As always, I do not intend to stir controversy with my posts. I think these types of conversations are important to be had in an evolving industry that has so much positive promise if regulated and enforced appropriately. Til next time, happy and safe flying :)