The public has decided that drones are a safety hazard; there have been too many reports of incidents in which UASs have come too close to an airplane, landed in an inappropriate place (White House, Forest Fires, US Open), injured bystanders and a host of other problematic incidents. The Secretary of Transportation held a high profile press conference to announce that drones would have to be registered—when, how, which ones and why were the obvious questions. The negative reaction was strong from drone world, but the political sympathizers were equally or more supportive of the initiative.
What is the appropriate regulatory response to this crisis? Is the goal to prevent problems, by being able to identify the UAV flier BEFORE there is an accident? Or is the goal to capture the bad person after the drone has crashed or has landed at an identifiable spot? Perhaps the purpose of the Foxx press conference was really to do something visible?
The Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Aviation Subcommittee, Rep. LoBiondo (R-NJ), has indicated that he is on the drone band wagon by saying:
“We’re trying to press the Federal Aviation Administration to come up with rules and regulations… How do [people] operate them safely? How do they operate them without interfering with privacy issues… If you’re going to purchase… a drone, a manufacturer should be responsible for the registry process… We have to keep pressing for the FAA to call for registration.” [emphasis added]
The bolded words point out the LoBiondo important policy goals:
- encouraging drone pilots to fly safely
- privacy concerns
- manufacturers responsible for registry
Those are significant regulatory concerns, but there is little correlation between the LoBiondo goals and compelling registration of UASs.
It is inappropriate to extrapolate, based on the existing fleet’s registration, what putting N numbers on drones will help to attain these three goals for UAS. First and foremost, as evidenced by the above two airplanes, the N number on the above jet is visible from considerably longer distances than the small N number on the quadcopter. The pilot on the plane, the points of take-offs and arrivals, the contact with the ATC (at a minimum radar visibility) and other factors collectively encourage, if not compel, the aircraft operator to comply, to be responsible. Registration is a bureaucratic step which truly does not markedly add to safety of UASs.
If safer flying is the desired outcome, registration of the AIRCRAFT will not, in and of itself, compel the flier of the drone to adopt safer flying procedures. Maybe a few drone operators might be incentivized to fly more safely for fear that the N number would lead the FAA to investigate the owner of an N numbered drone which was identified post-crash. It is easy to predict that the owner of an UAS would assert that someone else was flying when an identified incident occurred. That scenario does not project much of an increase in the adhering to better flight procedures.
The highest correlation between the goal of improved UAS flying standard and some governmental action would be a test like that required of all Private Pilot Licenses applicants. To qualify to fly a plane, one must pass both a written test and a practical demonstration of skills. Such a hurdle is likely to move towards Chairman LoBiondo stated direction, but the resources to design and administer the written examination are beyond the capacity of the FAA. The personnel demands to administer the practical test would be even greater. Perhaps delegation of those functions would work.
There is little likelihood that a mandate requiring owner register would reduce the frequency of drone flights which invade the privacy of others. If the flier would fly close enough to invade the space of a person, it is possible that the person being violated would be able to read the N number of the Peeping Tom UAS. Again, the owner of the identified drone might claim that he lent his bird to someone else. Registration does not enhance privacy.
To truly limit the Peeping Tom phenomena risk, education is the more likely mechanism to encourage drone fliers to behave better. That might be part of a license course or included in the Original Equipment Manufacturer’s instruction packets.
The third LoBiondo notion, greater OEM involvement, might contribute to the safety and privacy goals. As mentioned above, the manufacturer has the most direct and closest relationship with the operator. In particular, the education of the buyer is in the best interests of the company trying to expand the market. The industry would be good at creating instructional programs for all of these goals—CDs, YouTube videos, a cadre of instructors or even flying academies. Voluntary participation would be the best solution; for the regulatory nexus between the FAA and the OEM is attenuated.
Since UAS are not being “certificated” by the FAA, there is less direct, statutory authority over the OEMs. OEMs of the existing fleet of FAA certificated products have regulatory requirements to provide information on both initial and continuing basis. If the Chairman wants to assure the OEM’s participation and not rely on voluntary compliance of the manufacturers, he may have to enact new statutory powers for the FAA.
Objectives must relate to desired outcomes; registration does not, in and off itself, move the regulatory impact towards the three goals. Chairman LoBiondo, focus on practical regulatory mechanisms which will attain your well-articulated goals. You have the right idea and as usual the devil is in the details. Mere registration sounds better than its likely results.