Sitting in his garage, surrounded by fuselages and wings of model airplanes, a small, four-prop drone on his workbench, Ed Couch is a guy in a four-foot hover.
Couch can’t believe what the federal government recently announced: That it wants to start registering the untold thousands of drones across the country.
“They [the federal government] haven’t been able to register secondhand guns. I don’t see how this is going to work,” Couch, a 69-year-old model airplane enthusiast and pilot, said from behind his workbench.
U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and FAA Administrator Michael Huerta announced the creation of a task force last month to look into the registration of unmanned aircraft systems, commonly referred to as drones.
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Concerned that one of these remote-controlled aircraft will crash while flying over a crowded football stadium, or damage an airliner by getting sucked into one of its engines, the task force, which is meeting this week, is supposed to file a report by Nov. 20. They will look at the registration process and the minimum requirements for drones that need to be identified.
Smaller drones that don’t represent a threat will likely be exempt from registration since their lightweight frames and inability to fly very high make them less of a risk. But the bigger drones, which can fly thousands of feet into the air, pose what some say is a significant problem.
By the end of the holiday season, drones could far outnumber manned aircraft operating in the nation’s airspace.
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta
Initially, Foxx was quoted as saying they hoped to have the registration requirements in place by mid-December. But Huerta told the task force on Wednesday that their work will “lay the groundwork” for registration, but would by no means be the last word on the issue.
“The number of recreational unmanned aircraft continues to grow. Many retailers already have large stocks of UAS on their shelves for this holiday season,” Huerta told a Senate subcommittee last week. “This boom gives us the opportunity to bring the spirit of aviation to an entirely new class of users. This opportunity, however, also poses a real challenge.”
I hope something comes of it. My concern is that they will rush into it and make mistakes.
Al Cannan, owner of hobby shops in Hurst and Plano
Critics think the plan to move quickly flies in the face of common sense. The FAA has been struggling for years with this emerging technology. It’s also still working on other regulations for the widespread use of small unmanned aircraft.
Hobbyists wonder why the FAA expects to move so quickly. Al Cannan, owner of hobby shops in Hurst and Plano, said it is a “rather ambitious plan.”
“I don’t know if they can do it or not,” Cannan said. “I hope something comes of it. My concern is that they will rush into it and make mistakes. They’ve got a lot of work to do.”
The Consumer Electronics Association, which predicts that 700,000 drones will be sold by the end of the year, said any new regulations must be “imposed narrowly to accomplish true safety goals” and must be balanced against factors such as convenience, data integrity and privacy.
“Drones are revolutionizing how we respond to emergencies and disasters, track our weather and monitor traffic,” CEA President Gary Shapiro said in a statement. “Transformative, disruptive technologies require new thinking on how to create and support an innovative market both in regulatory and non-regulatory activities.”
The Academy of Model Aeronautics, which boasts 180,000 members in 2,400 clubs across the country, said the registration program must meet appropriate thresholds on weight and capability and other safety-related characteristics “that make sense.”
“But it should not become a prohibitive burden for recreational users who fly for fun and educational purposes and who have operated harmoniously within our communities for decades,” said Dave Mathewson, executive director of the AMA.
The speed of government
The FAA has been trying to land a policy about drones for years.
Tasked with regulating the nation’s airspace, the agency is proud of its record of making flying so safe that it’s boring. Its Commercial Aviation Safety Team, or CAST, for example, is credited with reducing the risk of fatalities in U.S. commercial aviation by 83 percent in 10 years.
But after 112 years of focusing on that mission, the agency is facing a new challenge. It is becoming increasing apparent that the launching of the unmanned aircraft phenomenon is playing a growing role in world aviation.
Luckily, there haven’t been any major accidents. but agency officials are worried.
Their concern was that the drone could have spooked the herd, and no one wants to see Longhorns running through the Stockyards.
Lynn Lunsford, FAA spokesman
In a speech before the Aero Club in Washington, D.C., last month , Huerta said: “Somebody called the birth of unmanned aircraft industry the Wright Brothers moment of our time. Maybe so. Maybe not. But there’s no question that innovation in this new segment is taking place at the speed of imagination. And — as we all know too well — government moves at the speed of government.”
Huerta told the audience that major retailers like Wal-Mart have said they plan to sell unmanned aircraft in the stores during the Christmas shopping season. A drone salesman had a booth at the Texas State Fair alongside guys hawking knives and floor cleaners, he said. And a big computer supplier was offering a free drone if someone buys a new computer — as long as you acted by Nov. 2.
“By the end of the holiday season, drones could far outnumber manned aircraft operating in the nation’s airspace,” Huerta said.
Already, the agency said pilot reports of unmanned aircraft has soared, with more than 750 drone sightings from November 2014 to August 2015. Pilots reported seeing drones flying as high as 10,000 feet.
“A Fort Worth police helicopter saw a drone flying between the buildings in downtown Fort Worth,” said Lynn Lunsford, a spokesman for the FAA in Fort Worth and Dallas. “In the space of an hour, I had reports of a drone within a mile of final approach of Love Field and also within a few miles of the final to DFW Airport.”
On a few occasions, someone with a new drone has gone to the Stockyards to get a shot of the herd on its daily drive, he said. “Their concern was that the drone could have spooked the herd, and no one wants to see Longhorns running through the Stockyards,” Lunsford said.
The FAA does have basic rules for drone operations, and these are the Big Three: Don’t fly within five miles of an airport’s controlled airspace without permission; don’t send a drone more than 400 feet above the ground; buzzing around in a populated area, like a downtown area or a soccer tournament, is not allowed.
But the agency is trying to clarify its rules even more following passage of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 that prohibits it from putting into force any regulation regarding model aircraft if it meets certain criteria including if the device is flown for recreational use and if it is less than 55 pounds.
Keeping the drone in “visual line of sight” without the aid of a camera or other devices is among the newer proposed rules. Commercial uses of drones, for the most part, is still prohibited, but the FAA is granting exemptions. By this week, the agency had granted more than 2,200 exemptions.
The agency is still reviewing 4,600 comments on the proposed small UAS rules, which are expected to be issued by spring.
Cracking down on violators
In the meantime, the FAA has focused on education as its formal rule-making goes forward.
They have issued guidance to the model airplane community about their rules, and they’ve got a smartphone app called B4UFLY, that alerts operators to restrictions and requirements at their current or planned location. It has conducted an outreach program, Know Before You Fly.
The FAA said pilot reports of unmanned aircraft had soared, with more than 750 drone sightings between November 2014 to August 2015. Pilots had reported seeing drones flying as high as 10,000 feet.
Yet, it also is trying to shoot down egregious behavior. In October, it proposed a $1.9 million fine against SkyPan International of Chicago for conducting 65 unauthorized commercial UAS flights over locations in New York City and Chicago from March 2012 to December 2014. SkyPan is an aerial photography firm.
Which has brought the FAA to the idea of registering drones in the same way it has larger manned aircraft for decades. The 26-member task force is made up of stakeholders in the issue including airline pilots, airport executives, representatives of GoPro, Wal-Mart, and model aircraft industry.
In a notice printed in the Federal Register, the Department of Transportation hopes the committee will develop recommendations on how to streamline the registration process. It says the agency, recognizing that paper registration may be too burdensome, is already evaluating an electronic-based registration system for small drones.
Huerta told the Senate subcommittee that registration will not only give them an opportunity to educate operators about airspace safety, but to help them identify and take action against those who don’t obey the rules.
“While the FAA is showing the flexibility needed to handle this exciting new arrival to aviation, we remain committed to our number one priority — a safe airspace. We do not want to stifle innovation, but we are never going to compromise on safety,” Huerta said.
‘A few years behind the stick’
But for Couch and others this expedited approach simply doesn’t fly.
While willing to work with the FAA, the Academy of Model Aeronautics said its own analysis of the FAA’s August report on sightings of unmanned aircraft by pilots found a more “complex picture.” Of the reported sightings, about 3.5 percent were identified with notations as a “near miss” or “near mid-air collision.” It also said that some of the most serious incidents in the FAA data involved government-authorized military drones, not civilian drones.
“Without a doubt, there are some records of ‘near misses’ that represent actual safety concerns, and more needs to be done to address those,” Mathewson said in a statement in September. “We believe the FAA’s drone data could help guide policy conversations about drones and help all stakeholders identify solutions to mitigate true safety risks. But this is only possible if we take the time to analyze and accurately characterize the data.”
You can’t stop someone from doing something illegal. You can’t fix stupid.
Ed Couch, model plane enthusiast and drone operator
Cannan said he’s worried that store owners like himself may get stuck with the responsibility of registering the aircraft, like a car dealer who sells a car. The dealer doesn’t check to make sure the driver has a license, but they do register the car, he said.
That would be a burden during the holidays, Cannan said. Recently he sold five or six four-prop drones at his two stores that likely would qualify for registration.
“I don’t have time to do that, especially around Christmas. I’m a busy person. I’m running around like a chicken with its head cut off,” Cannan said. “What this is going to do is burden the honest people. People who don’t care to about the registration are going to fly it without registration.”
Back in his garage workshop after demonstrating how he safely operates his drones, Couch agrees. A former engineer at Vought and Lockheed Martin who has written technical manuals for pilots, understands the need to fly drones safely. “I have a few years behind the stick,” he said.
Couch keeps log books of when and where he flies his drones, just like he would a full-size airplane. He agrees with the FAA’s fine against SkyPan. He’s also in the process of completing his paperwork to get an exemption to fly drones commercially.
Couch said there are already thousands of drones out there — some of them homemade — and wonders how they could be registered. He also said that many of the newer, cheaper drones don’t have serial numbers for tracking on the aircraft itself, but on the box.
“This deal is so ambiguous that I can’t figure out what they are going to do,” said Couch, who flies advertising blimps at the American Airlines Center and AT&T Stadium through his company, Over the Top. “I think it’s a knee-jerk reaction to a perceived problem.”
Those who want to follow the rules will do so, he said.
“A guy who doesn’t want to be found won’t be found,” Couch said. “You can’t stop someone from doing something illegal. You can’t fix stupid.”