Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Drone Deregulation To Saturate The Skies? A Truly Harebrained Idea

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There could be 2.4 million of these little pests in the skies by 2021, according to WSJ piece.

"Drones Are Set For A Surge' (WSJ Business News, March 19, p. B3) is not good news for commercial airline pilots - who've already had to deal with hundreds of close call incidents from reckless drone owners flying their toys in commercial airspace.. According to the piece:

"If drone deregulation gains as much traction as the White House, FAA and industry officials envision, the agency estimates overall commercial drone numbers could top 600,000 by the start of the next decade, or about three times the country's aviation fleet. "

And most worrisome (ibid.):

"When it comes to recreational uses - which have racked up the most explosive growth- the latest FAA forecast indicates the market segment will mos likely double to roughly 2.4 million drones by 2021."

As recently as June, 2014, a WaPo investigation had identified the primary issues with increased drone activity as follows:

A limited ability to detect and avoid trouble. Cameras and high-tech sensors on a drone cannot fully replace a pilot’s eyes and ears and nose in the cockpit. Most remotely controlled planes are not equipped with radar or anti-collision systems designed to prevent midair disasters.

Pilot error. Despite popular perceptions, flying a drone is much trickier than playing a video game. The Air Force licenses its drone pilots and trains them constantly, but mistakes are still common, particularly during landings. In four cases over a three-year period, Air Force pilots committed errors so egregious that they were investigated for suspected dereliction of duty.

Persistent mechanical defects. Some common drone models were designed without backup safety features and rushed to war without the benefit of years of testing. Many accidents were triggered by basic electrical malfunctions; others were caused by bad weather. Military personnel blamed some mishaps on inexplicable problems. The crews of two doomed Predators that crashed in 2008 and 2009 told investigators that their respective planes had been “possessed” and plagued by “demons.”

Unreliable communications links. Drones are dependent on wireless transmissions to relay commands and navigational information, usually via satellite. Those connections can be fragile. Records show that links were disrupted or lost in more than a quarter of the worst crashes.

 What was most inconceivable is that the FAA didn't even have drones on its planning radar at that time according to a Denver Post piece ('FAA Didn't Have Drones On Its Planning Radar - Air Traffic Control Designers Scrambling').  This was in terms of the NextGen Air Traffic Control system.  As that article noted:

NextGen's plans for the next five years do not address how drones will fit into a system designed for planes with pilots on board."."

So can this NextGen air traffic control system handle them? Doubtful.

Let's back up and recall most of the initial demand to fly drones came from the Dept. of Defense and Homeland Security. But then, prompted by drone manufacturers who would lose much of their market in the Middle East (thanks to reducing U.S. forces in Iraq, Afghanistan), commercial and other uses were pushed.  As early as Feb. 4, 2012  there appeared the story in The Wall Street Journal  ('U.S. Skies Could See More Drones', p. A7) noting "a new FAA bill, worth some $63 billion was already four years into the lobbying and rewriting phases." 

The bill's passage would "inundate" U.S. skies  with tens of thousands of unmanned drones sharing airspace with commercial planes .


"Barely hours after the 374-page bill became public pilot union officials urged a more deliberate approach. Lee Moak, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, which represents 53,000 pilots across North America, said his organization remains worried about safety issues such as training and certification of those unmanned aircraft."

The article continued by noting that: "Safety experts also have raised questions about the ability of sensors aboard unmanned aircraft to properly detect a nearby plane, and to assure immediate action to avoid a midair collision".

No surprise then that potential drone use was subsequently pushed and primed for: police departments, crop spraying, monitoring of oil pipelines, and now also commercial proposals, i.e. for wedding videographers, real estate agents to show prime properties, and even Amazon deliveries and Google imagery.

A  Denver Post, piece: 'Drone Close Calls'(June 25th, 2014,  p. 17A)   referenced dozens of perilous close calls, e.g.(p. 22A):

"The close calls were the latest in a rash of dangerous encounters between civilian aircraft and drones flown in contravention of FAA rules intended to safeguard U.S. airspace.."

The accumulating incidents so spooked one commercial pilot (Greg Cromer) that he actually wrote a letter to the FAA opposing the whole insane idea of opening U.S. airspace to these mechanical beasties, writing (ibid.):

 "I can see no way to prevent a collision with something that could be as small as a bird or a plane or kitchen appliance."

This all now appears to have been forgotten as we read (in the recent WSJ piece)  the following words quoted from Michael Kratsios - the White House deputy chief technology adviser- bloviating to a federal- industry drone conference:

"The U.S. cannot allow the promise of tomorrow to be hamstrung by the bureaucracy of the past"

Forgetting or ignoring that part of that "bureaucracy" - ensconced in the FAA - has also been to ensure the safety of the flying public.  Thus, "regulators are not trying to stop things"  (in the words of Jesse Kallman) but to ensure the skies are safe for all users. True, we haven't had a major aircraft disaster yet from a drone - jetliner collision, but we've come damned close.   And a drone collision - say into a jet engine - would be far more catastrophic than a bird strike, such as believed responsible for the Jan. 15, 2009 U.S. Airways incident when Capt. Sully Sullenberger had to save the day after a water landing.

According to the WSJ piece:

"FAA leaders have publicly pledged to use waivers or exemptions - bureaucratic maneuvers to get around existing regulatory hurdles".

But these leaders, especially now in the era of Trumpian deregulation, need to bear in mind that those hurdles and regulations are actually protections for millions of Americans. And those protections should not be sacrificed on the altar of expediency and profit for drone manufacturers - or users.

The best regulation - which was since scrapped under pressure from drone manufacturing lobbies in 2016-  was to  require drone operators to have a pilot's license for their unmanned aircraft. Also, the drone pilots would have been required to keep drones in sight at all times. Both regs sane and rational given a drone collision with a large commercial jet would be at least as catastrophic as a terrorist bomb.

But as with the case of mass shooting massacres (like in Vegas and Parkland) - which often surpass terror attacks in death tolls, we seem to pick and choose which modes of loss of life are acceptable (say for the sake of profits) and which aren't.  In the case of mass shootings using AR-15s or a possible drone-airline collision,  it is the profits of gun and drone makers that need protection. In the case of the standard 'Muslim radical" attack that takes lives, we're all hands on deck and man the barricades and everything else.  After all, it's just a brown guy (usually) with a bomb or rifle that needs taking down, so big loss. Right?

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