Last week the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) lost an argument requiring the registration of all hobbyist unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). I haven’t seen this much celebrating since the Empire lost big-time in The Return of the Jedi; “Let’s go to our reporters on Coruscant (Celebration). How about Naboo? Celebrating. Tatooine? Celebrating. Alderaan? Oh, wait, they were destroyed in the first movie … or was it the fourth movie? I’m so confused.” If only somebody kept an eye on the Empire, Alderaan might have made it to The Force Awakens.
But seriously, it appears an insurance salesman out of Maryland led the charge to strike down the 2015 regulation necessitating the registration of all hobbyist UAVs. In a time where hobbyists can fly UAVs further, higher, longer and without being tracked, the Pyrrhic battle waged was partly because a hobbyist didn’t want to pay the registration fee. He was asked, “What is the cost of the UAV’s registration?” “Five dollars,” he responded. There’s also the recording of the UAV owner’s name, physical address and email. When asked why not just pay the $5.00, the insurance agent/avid UAV owner replied, “… it was about more than [the] five bucks. It was the idea of government overreach.”
Actually, no, it’s really not.
I am, by nature, a person who opposes overreach by the government; I believe in Capitalism and the benefits of free enterprise. That’s not what was happening here; the registration requirement was not political.
This is what’s wrong with our conspiracy-obsessed society these days. Are there satellites that can track our movements? Yes. Can the government track your credit cards and social security numbers? Absolutely! Can the department of Transportation (DOT) through the FAA do anything, such as override your UAV for illegally flying over a celebrity’s wedding or send it careening into the office of the leader of ISIS? Are you insane? Having worked for the Federal government I can say this, with absolute certainty: the Federal government doesn’t have the collective wit to even write a novel about the Kennedy Assassination or the 9/11 attacks, much as less pull off any grand conspiracy with anything resembling success, I don’t care what Oliver Stone says.
The DOT or the FAA; do they have the kind of resources necessary to use UAVs to nefarious ends, e.g. overreach? Not NO, but HELL NO! The FAA doesn’t presently have the manpower or the resources to oversee the thousands of legitimate operators and airmen, e.g. pilots, mechanics, engineers, instructors, flight attendants, etc. that they have to watch today; they can’t possibly get in front of the millions of UAV hobbyists.
When I lived in Virginia, I drove up and down State Road 28; it is a major thoroughfare that connects such points as Dulles Airport, Manassas and I-66. In the farming communities of Fauquier County it wasn’t unusual to see a tractor chugging down State Road 28 with an orange triangle designating it as a slow moving vehicle; vehicles with FARM USE license plates used the State Road to get between their separate fields divided by connecting roadways. Even though they employed these vehicles to expedite on Virginia roads, they were not expected to be used to go to the grocery store or jump down the interstate. They are, however, required to be marked as a slow moving vehicle; it is the Law.
The ironic thing about the decision being struck down is that the hero/insurance salesman/UAV enthusiast probably did the UAV community more harm than good. Sure he rode others’ shoulders as the conquering hero during the victory dance, but he has now put the ball in the FAA’s court; the FAA can hold up the regulatory process or drag its feet even more in writing the rules that UAV businessmen have been craving for years now to get their businesses off the ground (no pun intended). The intense drive by the Commercial UAV community seeking lawful UAV operations for business is not particularly happy with this outcome; its years-long efforts to legitimize the industry; finalize regulations that have been dragging the slow-dance through the regulatory process, may have been dealt a serious blow. The UAV community is now perceived as uncooperative; worse yet, stubborn on such a trivial issue.
Why? Well, because the hero/insurance salesman/UAV enthusiast didn’t want to pay five dollars; he chose the UAV community’s battles; the ‘hero’ has met the enemy, and he is it.
And here’s where I’ll amend my previous statement about the government’s ineptitude, particularly the FAA. Yes, they couldn’t get out of their own way with a conspiracy. And they wouldn’t stand a chance in court forcing an airline to change what it’s been doing for decades. But they’re very successful against the little guy. And here’s why:
The FAA wasn’t in this fight for overreach. No, no, no. On the contrary, the UAV issue is – and has always been – strictly one of safety. The FAA and the DOT must justify to the airlines why a UAV intruded in their approach or departure vector; the FAA must explain to the millions of passengers making up the flying public why they can’t control UAVs in the commercial airspace. The FAA must also make account to the thousands of private pilots, helicopter operators, crop-dusters, news helicopters, police helicopters, aerial fire fighters, glider pilots, aerospace entrepreneurs, etc. … you know, the other millions of people who use the American airspace for commercial or recreational reasons. These aviators see UAV intrusions as a critical safety issue; an all-out Hazard. The FAA is accountable to these businesses and aviators.
There’s also something else: I’ve been to these major accident sites; as the reporters amass at the perimeter, the various participants in the accident investigation: the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the aircraft manufacturer, the engine manufacturer, the various employee unions, e.g. machinists, pilots and flight attendants, are already pointing their fingers at the FAA.
The NTSB Board Member approaches the podium; the smoking wreckage in the background; emergency workers still scrambling to recover victims. The Board Member will announce the fear that the accident was caused by the ingestion of a UAV during the take-off cycle; that the UAV intercepted the airliner during a critical phase of flight and that the airliner had neither the speed nor the altitude to successfully ‘fly-out’ of the disaster. The Board Member will point out that the UAV most likely was not registered and that finding the owner – the one responsible for the deaths and carnage – will be impossible; that there is no chance, until the NTSB has exhausted a year and change investigating the obvious, that UAVs should be better controlled/regulated.
The NTSB Board Member will ask for questions, but first, the Board Member will point out that the accident was caused, in large part, by the FAA’s lack of proper oversight of UAV operators.
And that’s where it gets political. At that point, as the body count climbs, despite all the FAA’s and Aviation Safety Group’s warnings that the UAVs are more a danger than getting credit for, the full brunt of the accident will fall on the one organization that has been trying to mete out common sense and safety.
With the total lack of control of UAVs that there is, it is inevitable; that day will come; it’s not a matter of ‘If’, but of ‘When’. And on that day, no one will ask the question, “Hey Hero, why didn’t you just pay the five bucks?”