HomeRegulations For Consumer Drones

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The other day, I was sitting at the kitchen table doing a little remedial work on my quadcopter after an unfortunate encounter with a tree. A neighbor, who happens to own a Cessna 170, dropped by and after eyeballing the drone for a few seconds, said, “I’d win.” Say again? “I’d win if I hit that thing with my airplane,” he said.

Probably true, although I wouldn’t take the bet either way. California Senator Dianne Feinstein definitely doesn’t share the sentiment, however, having just introduced theConsumer Drone Safety Act. In a nutshell, the bill would saddle the FAA with writing yet another set of regulations concerning UAS, despite being months (if not years) behind on the regs they’ve already been tasked with developing.

Feinstein’s view of “drone safety” is to have a new set of specific flight guidelines and restrictions for operating consumer-grade drones, equipping them with sense-and-avoid technology and transponders or ADS-B, and mandatory geo-fencing to keep these aircraft out of sensitive areas. And it would require manufacturers to retrofit, at their expense, the technology to achieve these requirements on drones already in the field. Buried in the fine print is a provision that would allow the Administrator to waive these requirements if he deems them not applicable or necessary. It’s a safety valve of sorts, but just the kind of thing the FAA has never been good at dealing with.

Whether this bill goes anywhere is debatable. Two pilot unions, the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association and the Air Line Pilots Association, have declared their support. So has the National Association of Broadcasters. Huh? That’s rich. The broadcasters want the right to fly news drones wherever they like to drive their ratings, but they don’t want you to have one? The aviation alphabets are aware of the bill, but none of them are taking a specific position yet.

Do these small micro-UAS really represent a threat to manned aircraft? Possibly, but as I’ve noted before, putting any realistic numbers on this is all but impossible. Nobody knows how many consumer-grade UAS are out there because the manufacturers of them are closely held and don’t report sales. What’s been driving the discussion is the FAA’s so-called “near miss” data, which lists what are little more than anecdotal sightings of UAS by pilots. None of this data has been verified or corroborated in any way that would suggest legitimate inquiry. A couple of months ago, I spoke to John Goglia, formerly of the NTSB, about this and he thought the sighting list was all but useless as a foundation for regulation. There’s just not enough real data in the data.

In her pressers, Feinstein has said that without this regulation, it’s only a matter of time before there’s a catastrophe. By that, I assume she means an air carrier accident caused by the likes of a Phantom 2 or a Q500. What’s the risk here? It’s probably not zero, but is it a high risk? Goglia thought a micro-drone ingested into a turbofan would cause damage, but not an accident. What’s needed ahead of any Draconian regulation like Feinstein’s bill is an understanding of the true micro-UAS population and some data on the consequences of a collision with one.

The FAA says it will embark on just such research sometime later this year or next to at least cast a little light on collision outcomes. One study has already been done and you can take a look at ithere (PDF). It was researched by Monash University for the Australian Civil Aviation Safety Authority and published in 2013. The methodology involved analyzing published experimental data and semi-empirical observations, but no blasting of drones at aircraft structures, as is done with bird carcasses for certification testing.

The study concluded that the most likely scenario for a drone strike—and we’re talking about micro-drones, not the Amazon box-carrying variety—for an airliner would be engine ingestion and substantial damage, but a low probability of a catastrophic outcome. The research suggests small drones would be unlikely to penetrate airliner windshields at approach speeds, but larger drones or higher speeds could result in penetrations; the data isn’t clear. The study did predict penetration of fixed-wing UAVs, although it’s not clear why the data supports this.

For general aviation aircraft—a Cessna 172 was the example—windshield penetration was deemed likely at cruise speeds, independent of UAV size. Penetration would be unlikely for a small drone at flaps-extended speed. I’m not sure if I buy that last assertion. My gut tells me that encountering a Phantom at 80 knots might penetrate the windshield, even if the odds are in my favor. Either way, this study reveals a not-very-high risk and, in my view, not one that needs regulation as onerous as Feinstein proposes. Yet.

The FAA’s pending study may produce findings that reveal a lower or a higher risk, but wouldn’t it be better to have that data before clamping down with yet more regulations that the FAA will struggle with writing? Congress specifically directed the FAA to stay out of direct regulation of model aircraft and the community oversight system consisting of Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) guidelines has worked well.

The advent of anybody-can-fly quads resets that idea, but perhaps the guidelines need some revision to reflect that new reality, not an entirely new set of FARs the FAA will have to write and which it will never, ever have the resources to enforce. To its credit, the FAA is pushing education and awareness to buyers and operators of consumer UAS and that’s what AMA told me it supports, too. There are provisions in this bill that AMA is, rightly, worried about. And maybe it’s time to recast the hierarchy of drones and draw a line at, say five pounds for micro-drones. Leave them alone and look at risks for heavier aircraft.

The FAA has often been accused of a tombstone mentality, dragging its feet on regulation until the bodies pile up. But that’s a two-bladed axe. Forward-looking regulation can attempt to reduce risks that aren’t even real and, in the process, can wreak economic havoc on the industries they’re supposed to improve. It’s the standard regulator’s dilemma and the Consumer Done Safety Act doesn’t change that. In my view, this new regulation is just a huge distraction for the FAA at a time when it really needs to focus on the two drone regs already in the works.

The biggie is autonomous, low-altitude drones and those will need sense-and-avoid and ADS-B. Let the FAA concentrate on getting those regulations rapidly right and not retrofitting Bebops and Phantoms with transponders they’ll never be able to carry.