Sky Danger

Get Tough on Drones Before People Die

The FAA’s weak regulations would try to control pilots and they are doomed to fail. Only regulating the machines themselves will avoid a catastrophe like a fatal crash with an airplane.

01.09.16 5:05 AM ET

It was a quiet October afternoon in the small seaside village where I live, Sag Harbor, on the eastern end of Long Island. The summer swarms who inundate our streets—locals call them “the Martians”—had long since disappeared. Our downtown is basically one short stretch of Main Street near the water, and one of its features is the vintage Variety Store where the prices may exceed the original nickel and dime limits but the pace of transactions remains unhurried and civilized.

Then, suddenly, this Normal Rockwell nirvana was rudely jolted by the impact of an uncontrolled flying object. Right outside the Variety Store a small drone crashed and burned on the sidewalk—luckily not hitting anybody. A condo developer used the drone to provide aerial views of a new property, but its “pilot” had lost control and it fell out of the sky.

There are mighty portents from this tiny cameo: The abrupt intrusion of an unruly machine into a sanctuary of civilization; the symbolism of “loss of control” that doesn’t simply apply to drones but to how people are feeling about so much in their lives; and the sense that nobody really knows how to preserve the privacy of individuals against the ever-growing reach of technology—whether in the hands of the National Security Agency, Amazon, or a drone operated by a peeping Tom.

In Sag Harbor the mayor decided that that the village needed to impose its own rules on drones: they should not be used to take photos of people without their consent; they should not fly over private property without consent; they should be banned from the air space over parks unless given permission.

In theory a village like this, the smallest form of municipal authority in the land, could have enacted these limits on the operation of drones because the Federal Aviation Administration had signally failed to do so. “The Feds could preempt local government,” advised the village attorney, “but they haven’t yet.”

Well, they have now. Several years after first deliberating on the problem of drones the FAA has finally moved and as a result thwarted or challenged the efforts under way in many villages, towns, and cities across the land to pass their own regulations. Basically the FAA insists that it is in charge of anything that flies. And, as a first step, it now requires all users of recreational drones (weighing less than 55 pounds) to register and receive a number through which they can be traced.

Recreational drones are also supposed not to fly above 400 feet and always remain in sight of the operator.

The problem is, however, that the FAA can draw up as many rules as it likes but has no means of enforcing them. This is, remember, an agency that has been frequently found wanting in the way it enforces safety standards in the area in which we most depend on its vigilance: commercial aviation.

Indeed, when it attempts to understand and regulate new technologies the FAA seems ill prepared, lacking both expertise and enough staff. For example, FAA inspectors are often too willing to accept untried technology. This happened in the case of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and its innovative electrical power supply system. The agency cleared the lithium-ion batteries that were crucial to this system even though they had never been properly tested—and two serious fire incidents caused the whole 787 fleet to be grounded. The failure was also clear in the case of the Virgin Galactic “space tourism” project where a crash of the prototype SpaceShipTwo revealed that the agency had been lax and complaisant on critical safety issues.

But this FAA weakness has been visible on a far greater scale as it began slowly to comprehend the impact of small drones—both those used for commercial purposes (weighing more than 55 pounds) and those classed as recreational. All along the agency’s mindset has been schizoid. One side of its brain operated on the principle of bureaucratic sovereignty: If it flies, we must regulate it. But the other side of its brain, the part that is supposed to be capable of understanding and dealing with rapid technological advances, never got up to speed.

The FAA’s bureaucrats have always been susceptible to lobbying pressures. Just how political and commercial interests intersect with professional obligations within the agency has never been easy to unravel, but drones have brought into play numerous pressures with different and sometimes contradictory interests.

First there is the least powerful of these interests, the Academy of Model Aeronautics. They represent the legions of hobbyists who often design and build their own drones and regard themselves as a cut above those who just buy drones out of the box and proceed to learn as they fly—or not, as the case may be.

The AMA actually had a sui generis role in the development of drones. From the 1950s it was model airplane designers who pioneered remote control by radio, first using comparatively primitive radio technology but ultimately providing the technological forerunners of military drones.

AMA members don’t like regulations imposed from above—they believe they have shown themselves capable of responsible self-regulation, and they certainly don’t want to be treated as though they are operating “toys.”

More persistent critics of FAA regulation include the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, representing the manufacturers of drones used for commercial purposes and the real lobbying heavyweights who see drones providing a whole new level of business for them, Amazon and Google. They want light touch regulation that will allow them to fulfill what they see as the true commercial destiny of drones: a new aviation category that can revolutionize, for example, the delivery of small packages as well as bringing invaluable eyes in the sky for the agriculture, energy, and public utility industries.

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But all along the FAA does not seem to have been able to make a clear distinction between what is a legitimate new category of aviation and the entirely different and escalating problem created by so-called recreational drones. On Dec. 17 the FAA released a fact sheet outlining how it would regulate both recreational and commercial drones. (Did anybody at the agency realize the significance of the date, the anniversary of the Wright brothers’ first flight?)

At the same time the true scale of the problem was revealed with a stunning number: the Consumer Technology Association said that it expected that 700,000 drones would be sold in the U.S. in 2015—an increase of almost two-thirds on 2014.

Before the FAA’s December announcement, more than 20 states had passed their own drone laws, as have major cities including Miami, Chicago, and Los Angeles. There are no common standards, and there are policing and public safety interests within many cities that value drones for their own work—in crime prevention, fire fighting, and for monitoring, for example, the integrity of local utility systems like electricity and water.

As a result there is a tumult of competing interests and voices, both within each community because each community is itself a microcosm of all the interests involved, and between the FAA and everybody else.

State and city officials are not going to give up easily on their own regulations. They, too, are conflicted. On one hand they want to be tougher than the FAA in prohibiting invasions of privacy, while on the other, they are eager to make use of drones where they have proved their utility. And the drone industry’s vested interests are clearly going to press for a rollback of some of the FAA’s proposals—like the one decreeing that commercial drones “may not fly over people, except those directly involved with the flight.” That’s a pretty restrictive rule, depending on how you define “over” and distinguish it from “near.”

There is no proposed test to assure competence in flying skills—like understanding up from down, three-dimensional awareness and acuity and, hopefully, what damage might be done by a 50-pound object impacting a soft-skinned being at 100 mph.

And absolutely nothing is being proposed that would address the greatest threat posed by drones—of a collision with a commercial airliner. In 2014 the FAA reported that pilots reported 238 sightings of drones dangerously close to their flight path but—again according to the FAA—by August of 2015 there had already been 650 such incidents, including 138 where drones were seen flying as high as 10,000 feet, and some where a drone came within 100 feet or less of airplanes on approach to a runway.

Be in no doubt, a small drone ingested into a jet engine or striking a control surface at a critical moment could bring down the airplane. 2016 could be the year when we see such a tragedy.

The FAA’s basic mistake has been to assume that it can actually regulate human behavior in the same way that it can regulate an industry. You could give the agency another 5,000 regulators in the belief that they can police this situation but, of course, they never could. A drone selling for a few hundred bucks is an extraordinarily sophisticated machine that will often be in the hands of idiots—or worse. In the real world the same assholes that aim lasers at incoming airliners over major cities will think nothing of “buzzing” a jet carrying hundreds of passengers.

The real means of dealing with this threat is to change what you can change, not what you can’t. That means changing the way the machine works, not the way the “pilot” behaves. Some manufacturers already offer software that automatically imposes altitude and range limits—in effect ensuring a “no fly zone” limit on the machine. To this could be added a proximity sensing ability that would prevent a drone from getting too close to a building—or an airplane.

But, following the long-standing tradition of waiting for something bad to happen before acting to prevent it, neither the FAA nor the drone industry are ready to take this step.