Drones: A Cautionary Tale

Drones: A Cautionary Tale

Drones: A Cautionary Tale

As I write this, yet another near-miss has occurred, this time in the U.K., where a small drone came within 20 feet of an Airbus 319 on approach at Heathrow. Encroachment of these aerial missiles into controlled airspace is becoming an everyday event, affecting FAR 91, 121, and 135 operations. It’s only a matter of time before an airliner’s jet engine ingests a mixture of plastic, metal, electronics parts and Lithium Polymer batteries, with predictable results. For operators of smaller aircraft, a drone will eventually bull’s-eye a cockpit windshield, or maybe hit a wing and rupture a fuel tank, resulting in a fire. Of course, it could hit the elevator: “What happened to my pitch control?” We don’t know the way it will play out, but, at some point, two of these airborne objects will try to occupy the same place at the same time.

What are the “authorities” doing about this?

In much of the world, the authorities aren’t doing anything, other than wagging a finger towards a TV camera and reminding viewers that they have an obligation not to fly their new toy anywhere near airports. The reaction of many drone owners? Yawn.

In the U.S., you are now required by law to register your drone with the FAA and place the assigned tracking number on each of your devices.

But, what’s the FAA going to do with the registry data? Well, if enough of the device survives an encounter with an airplane or helicopter, the Feds will be able to track down the malefactor and cuff ‘im. Of course, airplanes are still damaged (best case) and/or people are dead (worst case.)

Will this registry idea work?

There is a precedent we can study. It doesn’t involve dead people but it does involve the general public and a federal agency. It’s a cautionary tale about what happens when a technical enterprise collides with human nature. The agency was the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) and the event was the creation of the Class D citizens-band radio service, in September of 1958.

Class D citizens band radio was created by stealing – sorry, “repurposing” – the 11-meter high frequency radio band from amateur radio enthusiasts. The FCC went through the required notice of proposal/public comment period and received around a 10-to-1 response against the plan, driven principally by the amateur radio community’s abhorrence of the idea. Ham operators pointed out that they often provided the only means of emergency communications in times of natural disaster – plus other public services – and they needed the 11-meter spectrum.

Those in favor of the idea were mostly made up of the usual suspects: people that stood to gain financially. In 1958, just as now, that group held trump cards over the great unwashed masses, so the FCC ignored the voices of reason and sided with the robber barons.

How did the bureaucracy handle the implementation?

The FCC required those wanting to operate CB radios to obtain a license before they fired up their new toys. There was no training or supervised testing required (unlike the mandatory requirements for the Ham Radio operators formerly using the spectrum). Just apply, check a few boxes promising to be good little boys and girls, and abide by Federal radio regulations. As soon as you got a piece of paper with your call sign in the mail, you were good to go.

Other than the time spent filling out the application, and payment of a nominal fee, that was it.

Then what?

A few docile people did apply and were given call signs to be used faithfully (the equivalent of marking the side of a drone with a registration number). Shortly thereafter, some operators were rewarded with nasty letters from the FCC when they were caught violating some rule, such as failing to identify or re-identify their station with their assigned call sign within the mandated time period. Or perhaps they – horrors – allowed a non-family member to use their family radio system or allowed a non-employee to use their business system.

Whatever, fines were threatened, so it soon became obvious to even the most law-abiding person that it wasn’t in an operator’s best interest to request a call sign or let anyone know their true identity on the air. Big Brother was listening.

Citizens rebelled and stopped applying for or using call signs. In fact, they adopted something called “Handles”, in place of official call signs, which were often colorful names, such as “Bandit” in the Burt Reynolds movie or perhaps an X-rated variant.

No one applied for licenses because human nature has two motivators: pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain. Of the two, the latter always prevails over the former. The pain in this case was threats from a Federal Bureaucracy that knew who they were and where they lived. The pleasure was the safety and convenience brought by an inexpensive two-way radio system in those pre-cellphone days.

A sizeable group of CBers also wanted to use the new (to them) technology to do what the displaced Ham operators did as part of their hobby, but without the annoyance of obtaining an amateur radio license, involving a relatively-difficult test plus learning Morse code. They wanted to “work skip”, which meant they wanted to talk to people hundreds or thousands of miles away by reflecting signals off the ionosphere – a no-no, since the purpose of the Citizens Band was to facilitate short-range communications for family and/or business purposes. In essence, this is similar to wanting to fly an aircraft in controlled airspace without the inconvenience of gaining a pilot’s license.

It wasn’t long before the FCC admitted defeat and decreed that henceforth, Citizens Band radio would no longer require licenses. A government-approved free-for-all then ensued on the 11-meter shortwave band and what was supposed to be a regulated situation became a chaotic conglomeration of people doing whatever they wanted to do with a spectrum originally allocated for two specific purposes.

Drone3Days of Future Past

So, based on that citizen/federal agency template, how is the current system of registering drones, and allowing untrained people – some of them scofflaws – to fly them, going to work out? Let’s see.

On the one hand, you could register the drone and wait for a knock at the door if you ever get caught doing something you shouldn’t. Or, you could not register it – in fact, not even admit to anyone you have it – and have plausible deniability if something untoward happens.

Should you could be a good little citizen and do what the FAA says you should do, or not?

Gee, this is a tough one.

Are there solutions?

Some manufacturers are building a GPS receiver into their craft which will not allow flight around air carrier airports.

Flaw: That’s a good step towards protecting airliners, but it does nothing to protect helicopter operators anywhere, or aircraft operating near the much larger number of small airports used by general aviation.

In addition to GPS lateral control to avoid some airports, how about limiting altitude to, say, 100 feet above the ground, using GPS and a barometric sensor integrated into the controller?

Flaw: Expensive to do and what about the millions of drones already being operated?

How about requiring registration by forcing the new owner to input the FAA registration number into non-volatile memory in the drone’s controller and receiver, prior to each flight? Legally, that would force acceptance of responsibility for every flight.

Flaw: not practical without a way to verify the number was actually assigned and valid before the drone will fly. And, even then, what would prevent an operator from simply “appropriating” someone else’s registration number?

How about a version of the data recorder so treasured by crash investigators? Something that has the registration number encoded on a chip that could survive an encounter with a real aircraft in most scenarios?

Flaw: Possible, but expensive and what about the millions of drones already being operated?

In my humble opinion, unless a compliance law exists with teeth – such as a mandatory one-year prison term for anyone caught flying an unregistered drone or other unmanned aerial vehicle weighing more than one pound – the majority of people are not going to participate in a registration program.

Pretty stiff penalty you say? You’re right, but, without a way to find out who the operator was, should a mishap occur, drone hobby law enforcement will become akin to the Citizen’s Band debacle. This time, though, physical property damage and death are the potential consequences of operation of an unlicensed transmitter by an unknown person.

Mike Simmons is President of Plane Data, Inc. and may be reached at 800-895-1382 or 828-737-1599 (Direct & International), or by visiting www.planedata.com

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