Aviation is not intuitive. Aviation regulation is arcane. UAS regulation is, to borrow a phrase from Winston Churchill (describing Russia), “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” The FAA Administrator announced that he is creating two new positions within his organization to deal with the interest of the public in UASs, UAVs, RPAVs, drones or whatever this new, exciting form of aviation is to be called.
One of those jobs, the Drone Oracle (denominated as such for purposes of this post) is assigned to pierce the mystery of the regulation of these aircraft; the other new (actually an old job elevated in the organizational chart) person, the Regulator, is tasked with the actual development and implementation of these safety (also “economic” sutto voce) standards. Hopefully the position descriptions and the persons selecting the individuals will recognize that the successful candidates must possess unique, high level talents.
The FAA has developed a methodology to its regulations and this system has proven to be successful in facilitating its surveillance. Licensing of pilots, issuance of registration of N numbers, certification of operators and filing of flight plans are all seines which capture information which contribute to the FAA’s ability to enforce its rules. The value of those elements and historical interpretation of the FARs are not readily apparent to the UAS community.
That lack of understanding is one of the enigmas with which the new Oracle must address proactively. The perfect example of the cognitive dissonance, which exists between the regulator and the regulated, is the FAA’s interpretation of commercial operations (versus “hobby”) or the test of what constitutes “compensation or hire.” Explaining how this legal interpretation, which has been in force for years and which has created an enforceable standards for aviation, should be one of the Oracle’s tasks.
The new Oracle will have to be able to explain the riddles of the legalities of the proposed Part 107 and its progeny, while listening to industry about both complaints over the FAA’s rules as well as the new developments in the UAV industry. The person must have both a thick hide to absorb the negative comments and a gifted ear to hear where the technology is going while translating that input into new regulatory responses. Thus, the picture of the Greek man shows his stylus poised over a laptop is so appropriate.
The two positions will be placed in different lines of command. The Oracle will report to the Deputy Administrator, which is the second highest officer within the FAA. The Regulator will continue to be part of the Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety, the organization with the mission of writing and enforcing rules. In the past the UAS function reported through a Director to the Associate Administrator. The change is to eliminate that intervening report.
So the Oracle will have a high level job of communicating with the UAS industry while the Regulator will focus on the development and implementation of standards. This bifurcation may free up the Oracle to create greater contact with is rapidly developing industry and allowing the Regulator to focus on the internal job of getting the rules written. But this two-headed hydra may also create potential for problems. The Oracle may respond to an industry inquiry with an answer which signals change. That inadvertent statement of policy may or may not comport with what the Regulator is doing/thinking. The reverse is possible with the Regulator taking actions contrary to the ideas proposed by the Oracle. Those potentials for tension may be exacerbated by their spilt reporting relationships. Since the Oracle works for the powerful Deputy Administrator and the Regulator reports to someone one level down in the organization chart, the resolution of any such conflicts will be difficult and could on occasion delay.
The Regulator will also face Sisyphean challenges. While Part 107 is in process of being adopted (with appropriate amendments), the UAS industry is forging ahead. As innovations like an effective “sense and avoid” system are made available, the rules in place will have to be revised. Iterative changes to the rules will be time consuming and demanding of the Regulator’s and Chief Counsel’s staffs. That will involve pushing the proverbial rock uphill only to see gravity pull it back down for multiple cycles.
Equally challenging will be the enforcement of the UAS rules. The FAA does not have the staff to surveil of and take action against illegal and/or unsafe UAS operators. There has already been outreach to the nation’s Law Enforcement Offices, but the likely response will be minimal or ineffective. If rampant disregard of the FAA’s rules becomes more of a reality, such non-compliance will effectively defeat these safety standards.
As this short review of the challenges that the Oracle and the Regulator face shows, the candidates selected may have to have the superhuman powers of the Greek Gods or fall into a Greek Tragedy.