The Invisible Wall for UAVs

Yes, we need rules. But we need the right ones.

Just last week, a DJI Phantom quadcopter crash landed at the White House, I’m sure causing the Secret Service a coronary. As a result, DJI is issuing a firmware update that disables their aircraft from flying in certain no-fly zones. Given the flurry of press coverage, the president responded:

We don’t yet have the legal structures and the architecture both globally and within individual countries to manage them the way that we need to,” Obama said. His administration “is seeing if we can start providing some sort of framework that ensures that we get the good and minimize the bad.

The president is correct about not having the right structures.  And I can’t fault the administration for the terrible state of UAV regulation in the US–this is exactly the kind of issue that is rightfully delegated to technocrats.  However, in this case, the technocrats have woefully dropped the ball over the last 8+ years.

This morning I listened to a Planet Money podcast about solving poverty in the developing world, and heard an eerie connection to our problems with UAV regulation. A fellow named Hernando de Soto went in search of what was keeping people poor in his parents’ homeland of Peru. He found that people weren’t being lazy, or failing to save or invest, but that the government’s laws and institutions were so byzantine and inefficient that a business could not comply with the law without going broke. It took over nine months merely to open a business making T-shirts.  To open a sanctioned marketplace where people could buy and sell would take 13 years to get legal approval. As a result, people operated their businesses “off the books” and accordingly, had no ability to open bank accounts, borrow money, or enforce contracts.

The situation with the FAA’s UAS regulations bears striking similarity: their rules are so ridiculous that they often cannot be complied with. In other cases, hobbyists can do pretty much do whatever they like (as is probably the case with the White House crash) under the cover of the voluntary guidelines of AC 91-57.

I’ve been critical of the blanket prohibitions by the FAA on commercial UAV usage, and have proposed that the FAA relinquish jurisdiction over most airspace under 500 feet above ground to state and local authorities. This is a perfect example of why this should be the case. Washington, DC could have strict rules in place to keep the federal government safe from airborne threats, and which don’t need to be the same rules in force in Jackson Hole, Wyoming or Malibu, California.