Tuesday, May 5, 2015

The FAA vs Amazon.com

While not quite the fight of the century (apparently that one was a snoozer), the FAA never stood a chance against Amazon.

During my last tour in the Navy, I managed the development of some doctrine for integrating the Scan Eagle Unmanned Aircraft System or Vehicle (UAS/UAV),  or Drone if you will, into the scheme of maneuver for Amphibious Operations.  We were left to our own devices in this arena as Carrier Operations were still loathe to even consider UAVs on the carrier, save for a one-off test platform that was still years away. To prep for that effort, I had to visit several drone makers in the San Diego area.  

The first stop was probably the most interesting- Swift Engineering up in San Clemente- think Nixon's Western White House. Swift is a small company which started designing Indy race cars.  The race car is all about down-force, but if you flip the design over, you've essentially got a wing and therefore lift- the opposite of downforce.  Next up was a visit about 15 minutes north my house- to Poway, (pronounced Pow-Way), for some Predator and Reaper appreciation up at General Atomics ASI.  Finally I toured Northrop Grumman's facility in Rancho Bernardo to get a look at their X-47B UCAS.

After my last flying tour in the venerable Viking, knowing that manned surveillance missions were going the way of the dinosaur, I thought that getting onboard the UAV train was the right move for me.  Did you see what I did there? Onboard a UAV!  Ok, it sounded funnier in my head than it probably is.  I wrote about it here and here if you're interested in a trip down The Chant's memory lane.

The UAV appreciation tour was fun and interesting , even if it wasn't all that useful to my doctrine efforts.  More importantly however, it was a great way to network for a job after retirement.  It paid off to some extent, as I interviewed with both Northrop and GA-ASI, making it to a fourth interview for a Program Manager position in foreign military sales of the Reaper to the Italian Air Force.  Frequent travel to Italy was one of the upsides to the position.

You already know the rest of the story- I didn't get the job there, but wound up in the Mine Warfare field as a Govie.  Part of my job in the civilian side of the Navy involves managing the transition of Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs) to the fleet.

I've still followed the UAV industry as there are lessons to be learned in each field that are applicable to the other, despite being very different- power management, sensors, command and control, data transfer, etc. While having an operator know what a Scan Eagle is doing is relatively easy, just by using some basic radio connectivity, doing the same for a UUV is nearly impossible.  Underwater communications are much more challenging.  If a UUV loses power, it just sinks, or more likely- floats to the surface.   But if a Predator's engine cuts out, you're possibly ruining homes, if not lives.

That is what has concerned the FAA since the industry started taking off- mostly in the private sector and for UAVs smaller than 55 pounds.  It resisted the development of nearly any regulation for UAVs other than their blanket rule prohibiting their use in almost every circumstance.  Congress and the industry pushed the agency to expand their use, but their resistance continued.
The FAA requires that all drone operators receive permission from the agency, called a certificate of authorization, before they can fly their unmanned aircraft. Most certificates limit drones to 400 feet in altitude and require that they remain within sight of the operator and at least 5 miles away from an airport.       Source
While a drone crashing into the ground is one of their fears, it's a minor one compared to their worry that one might collide with an airplane.  
“It should not be a matter of luck that keeps an airplane and a drone apart,” said Rory Kay, a training captain at a major airline and a former Air Line Pilots Association safety committee chairman. “So far we’ve been lucky because if these things are operating in the sky unregulated, unmonitored and uncontrolled, the possibility of a close proximity event or even a collision has to be of huge concern.”
Despite this fear, change was inevitable. There are just too many UAVs on the market, too much potential for their usage, and too much airspace to control for the FAA's worries and warnings to be viable and taken seriously.  One last gasp for control can be characterized by this headline from March- "The FAA Says You Can't Post Drone Videos on YouTube."  It claimed that posting it constituted commercial use, which is supposedly prohibited, yet not really enforced.  
It's worth mentioning that the FAA's drone enforcement strategy is a bit of a mess. Regional safety offices decide initial enforcement, often without contacting FAA headquarters or ​considering things such as the First Amendment.
But some of the greatest use of these drones is in the commerical sector- Real Estate, Sports, Security, not to mention entertainment. While some use for Hollywood has been approved, it's only the exception to the rule, and only when certain safety conditions have been met.  It's the hobbyist that has the majority of the UAV market however.  And the posting of those videos is wonderfully rampant- giving the world a birds-eye view that just 10 years ago was limited almost exclusively to helicopters or the occasional ultralight pilot deft enough to handle both a camera and the controls.

So in a dramatic shift in both attitude and action, the FAA finally relented and gave that first inch:
DOT and FAA Propose New Rules for Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems- The FAA proposal offers safety rules for small UAS (under 55 pounds) conducting non-recreational operations. The rule would limit flights to daylight and visual-line-of-sight operations. It also addresses height restrictions, operator certification, optional use of a visual observer, aircraft registration and marking, and operational limits.                                                                                Source
The article goes on to say how the regulations could evolve for greater use of UAVs.  I'm glad for the change- blame it on my closet libertarianism, but you can't close off 100% of airspace to drones when the airline industry uses far far less than one percent of it.  Kind of like gun control- too late, too ineffective, and targeting the wrong users (abusers).  
“We have tried to be flexible in writing these rules,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. “We want to maintain today’s outstanding level of aviation safety without placing an undue regulatory burden on an emerging industry.”
And if drone usage was prohibited and enforced, then we wouldn't get such awesome videos as this one-

Good Morning, San Diego! from Eladio Arvelo on Vimeo.

Yeah, it's a bit of a Chamber of Commerce video, but I really like it -and my hometown of course. I hope that the freeing up of regulations will allow more of these- and get my Amazon.com package delivered!


  1. Can't say I "remember" it, but I've definitely read up on it. As part of that doctrine work I mentioned above, we reviewed past drone efforts the Navy had taken- BQM included. DASH helos were pretty resilient- still in operation up until about 10 years ago.

  2. And Skip has once again increased my knowledge.

    Nice post Tuna, most informative.

    The Sandy Eggo video alone was worth the price of admission. (Figure of speech there folks, we don't charge admission. Yet. I'm kidding.)

    1. I shoulda provided a link.

      What I remember most is the anticipation of the arrival of the equipment and operators.
      We got some of the control equipment about 6 mos. after FRAM and two brown shoes about a year after that.
      But mostly what we had was a big empty hangar and landing pad.
      I was a great place for showing movies, having religious services, and conducting change of command ceremonies.

  3. I can remember talking a tour at Beale and the Global Hawk - wingspan 138 feet I think - and it is a constant concern of theirs when launching this.....Except the Air Force probably had a radar screen with (hopefully) transponder-equipped planes on view.

    You know these little drones are coming - see a company advertising for $999 one that can stay aloft for 30 minutes and video what you direct...not to market yet (and maybe vaporware) but they are coming.

    I live about 2 miles from a busy GA airport - I see planes coming in sometimes at 500'

    How can the UAVs keep separate with the average (non pilot) oblivious to FAA regs?

    Imagine one of these little planes going into the intake of a Citation. for example.

    1. Or, alternatively, a marginally trained UAV operator, flying one too close to an airport. "Gee, I didn't know they descend that low, I'm a mile from the runway"

      That having been said, I see the usefulness in Drones. Beer and Chickenwings delivered right to my door at Rancho Juvat! What's not to like?

  4. Down in TJ you can get your meth delivered by drone- why not beer and wings? http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/01/22/a-meth-toting-drone-just-crashed-in-tijuana/

  5. The thing that drive's me nuts about the FAA's (lack of) regulation is that a less than a pound collection of Styrofoam and plastic with a bit of wiring is poses an entirely different risk to the public than a 55# flying object.

  6. Beer? You can get beer via UAS delivery. Just need to enjoy ice fishing.


  7. Tuna/

    You old enough (probably not) to remember that 1960-1961 private detective TV series based in SD called COronado9 (reflecting pre-digital telephones--Ours was "DIamond5"xxxx) staring Rod Cameron? Opening shot was always of the hotel in background--that hotel is so distinctive I can't imagine anyone not recognizing it!)

  8. Thanks VX, but no, not quite old enough, but close.


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