It is fairly widely held that a major UAS accident could impact the safety rules under which UAS aircraft operate. DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson said during an interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd that “will be an issue for federal, state and local security during the 2016 presidential race.” That’s a very strong and potentially threatening statement. Why did he make such a strong prediction and how might it impact this nascent industry?
The Secretary explained while on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe”:
“I was giving a commencement address a couple weekends ago and in the middle I look up and I see a little drone flying over my head,” Johnson said. “Fortunately the Secret Service was on this guy in a second, but it was a little distracting in the middle of what I thought was an inspirational speech and all of a sudden I see this thing buzzing over my head.”
That’s the kind of experience which marks senior policy makers in Washington. Add to that the UAS landing on the White House grounds have shaped his views on drones. Likely that perspective will influence DHS’ position on policies under consideration. His strong stance might impact the DHS contribution to the interagency review of the comments on the Part 107 NPRM. The national security is a powerful consideration in any policy debate and there may be opportunities to add security limits.
If the Secretary is correct that the 2016 Presidential Campaign will involve the security risks of drones, the potential for all changes must be acknowledged and preparations started now. If UAS security gets in that mix, it is not likely that the issue will be confined to the risks; privacy could easily be included and it is possible that safety regulation, both increasing and decreasing the proposed scope of the rules, will be joined, too. Presidential election politics are like a subway third rail in policy debates; it should be avoided at all costs.
It is easy to forecast that candidates will assume pro drone positions and that others will express greater concerns about national security. Their pollsters and subject matter experts will counsel their candidates about which drone platform will draw the greatest votes and which response will be the best safety, security and economics solution.
If, indeed, the Secretary’s prognosis is correct, stakeholders should work with the candidates’ organizations. They should draft position papers, get them to the right maven in each campaign, set up meetings and begin to fashion grass root support. That last step has the potential to be the most powerful; nothing so attracts the attention of a campaign team as a mass of emails, post cards, etc. [Note: this is VERY different from the effectiveness of mass mailings to the FAA docket.]
For those who think in strategic terms, it would be prudent to try to find candidates for the FAA Administrator job. Yes, Administrator Huerta’s term overlaps the next inaugural, but his Deputy is not subject to the same term “protection” and Mr. Huerta would not be welcome to DoT and White House meetings of another President, even if s/he is a Democrat. Identifying someone with the technical knowledge, the political connections and a history which can make it through the invasive vetting process requires a lot of time and considerable forecasting of who the viable candidates may be.
The Secretary has an impressive record in the Executive Branch (DoD General Counsel, USAF General Counsel), but does not have much experience in election politics. It may be premature to act on his prediction, but it may well be prudent to beginning to prepare now.