Monday, November 24, 2014

I See a Retirement Job as a Drone Pilot in my Future

Detailed in a Wall Street Journal article today, the FAA has finally released a framework for the regulation of commercial drones in domestic airspace:

Highly anticipated federal rules on commercial drones are expected to require operators to have a license and limit flights to daylight hours, below 400 feet and within sight of the person at the controls, according to people familiar with the rule-making process. 
The drone industry has awaited commercial rules for about six years, hoping the rules would pave the way for widespread drone use in industries such as farming, filmmaking and construction. Current FAA policy allows recreational drone flights in the U.S. but essentially bars drones from commercial use.

Drones have great commercial potential for many applications including real estate, construction, pipeline and transmission line inspection, farming and movie making. Potential future applications include things like package delivery, biology, animal migration tracking and law enforcement surveillance. So the industry has reacted with dismay at the level of restriction placed on future commercial drone use:

Airline pilots and aircraft owners have supported the cautious approach. But some drone-industry officials predict a loud backlash to the proposal. 
“I feel like there’s a colossal mess coming,” said Michael Drobac, executive director of the Small UAV Coalition, an advocacy group for drone makers and innovators, including Google Inc. and Inc. The rule is going to be “so divorced from the technology and the aspirations of this industry…that we’re going to see a loud rejection.”

In addition to line of sight operations, and a 400 ft maximum altitude, the proposed rule making will require drone pilots to have a licensed pilot at the controls:

Since then, much of the growth has shifted to smaller drones. The expected rules are “going to be very restrictive for small systems,” she added. 
Jesse Kallman, head of regulatory affairs for drone-software firm Airware, said requiring commercial drone pilots to have cockpit training “will end up excluding someone who has hundreds of hours of experience on an unmanned aircraft in favor of a pilot who understands how to operate a Cessna but not an unmanned aircraft.”

So now I'm thinking to myself, "Self, do you know anyone with a pilots license who might need a part time job sometime in the future?"

And my self answered right back, "Why come to think of it, yes! Yes I do know someone who could charge ridiculous fees to fly a drone around someone's backyard or construction site."

And of course this is all for the sake of safety, with the imprimatur of the world's preeminent aviation regulatory body, the FAA. (heh)

Now, seriously, I get that there needs to be some sort of regulatory framework for the commercial use of drones. Any collision between a drone and an aircraft will likely result in a catastrophe. So yes, the FAA is right to insert itself into the operation of drones.

But also in true circle-the-wagons regulatory fashion, the agency goes completely overboard and throws the baby out with the bathwater. Common sense dictates that there should be different rules for drones based on size and altitude. A collision with a child's two pound toy flying around the yard, while potentially serious, is quite unlikely whereas a collision with a 50 pound pipeline inspection drone would likely bring down any aircraft.

That common sense approach didn't happen:

The agency also plans to group all drones weighing less than 55 pounds under one set of rules. That would dash hopes for looser rules on the smallest drones, such as the 2.8-pound Phantom line of camera-equipped, four-rotor helicopters made by China’s SZ DJI Technology Co. Similar-sized devices are seen as the most commercially viable drones and have surged in popularity in the last two years. 
Small-drone supporters say such models are less risky to people and structures than heavier drones like Boeing Co. ’s ScanEagle, a gas-powered, 40-pound aircraft with a 10-foot wingspan that can stay aloft for more than 24 hours. ConocoPhillips Co. uses the ScanEagle to gather data on Arctic ice pack and whale migrations.

But with today's technology, collisions with man made flying objects are becoming ever less likely. For over a decade now, transponder and anti-collision technology has made every other aircraft within 40 miles visible on a display in the cockpit. This technology is affordable and can easily be installed on commercial drones. Even hang gliders are now required to have transponders under certain circumstances.

The FAA at least understands its incentives. Famously known as a "tombstone agency" meaning it typically reacts after an accident, any fatal accident will draw instant headlines and mean lots of SES scale bureaucrats in cushy sinecures with fat government pensions will soon be applying for the non-government jobs they previously regulated out of existence. In other words, they'll be fired. That much they get.

Applying complex risk assessment tools used to balance the needs of commercial aviation safety with the potential benefits of drones is not really their bag. If a drone manufacturer fails or new time or energy saving applications never come into being well that's too bad. Writing intelligent rules that provide maximum safety with maximum benefit is really hard work. Much easier to play it safe.

Were I writing the rules, requiring special equipment and certification when operating near airports seems sensible. Also requiring transponders seems to make sense but the line of sight operations restriction is silly as data links can provide a virtual birds eye view to the pilot as stated in the article. This is the approach that was taken in Canada.

In their typical glacial pace, the FAA will now open the proposed rulemaking to comments for several months after which the actual rules might not appear for one or two more years. But hey, after waiting six years already, what's a few more waiting to get your business started going to matter?

In the meantime, since the FAA quadrupled the hours required for new pilots to get their first airline job, there should be plenty of pilots hanging around to fly the pipeline inspection and crop dusting aircraft that drones are ready to replace.

And by requiring prospective drone pilots to have real airplane licenses, I know of a slightly overweight and greying airline pilot who will have a great retirement job waiting for him.

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Capt Rob