Drone pilots who break the rules: are they criminals deserving of enforcement or simply pushing innovation?
Recently, news broke out that has drone pilots furiously posting on social media. A drone pilot flew a drone over a football game, into the stadium and subsequently over fans. Posts are going up in rapid fashion as pilots argue that the FAA should take enforcement action against this drone pilot. Some comments suggest this story is a perfect example of why drone pilots need to be held responsible. This story and its subsequent response beg an important question. Are drone pilots shooting themselves in the foot by screaming for enforcement? At what point should pilots consider the role of enforcement against the importance of innovation?
This article is sure to stir up some controversy. Our society is seemingly confined into an ever shrinking box, and conflicting conversation and thought provoking questions are often ignored. In order to advance our society as a whole, we need to have conflicting conversations and seriously consider questions with objectivity. When we do this, we all evolve. Which is why I’ve (Paul) decided to write this article.
The main goal of my article is to ask the question, at what point should we consider innovation rather than enforcement? Should enforcement or innovation take precedence, and what guidelines should be imposed to suffice both issues?
At Drone U, we believe deeply that drone pilots should be responsible. Building habits of responsible flight reduce liability and increase the ability for skillful flight execution which ultimately leads to success for all involved parties. The FAA makes it very clear that pilots are ultimately responsible. We are one of the few industries that has all ultimate liability fall on the operator.
When pilots break the rules, there is enforcement against the pilot. It is still not clear how much enforcement is occurring in the continental US. The propensity of enforcement seems to weigh on media coverage and internet commentary. It also seems to weigh on pilot response to the FAA. When the FAA does enforce against a pilot, the FAA typically takes a compliance philosophy. The FAA educates the offender in hopes that the second chance will inhibit future offenses and empower the pilot. This philosophy was born out of the FAA being rather harsh and strict, which only exacerbated the problem.
During typical enforcements against drone pilots, compliance philosophy allows pilots to have a second chance. Drone pilots often claim ignorance and are let off the hook. Any drone pilot who has been around for a while knows the reality of FAA enforcement. Any academic will tell you the FAA is not an enforcement agency, but rather, the FAA is a regulatory agency. The real enforcement occurs with insurance companies when pilots fail. Insurance carriers only payout claims when FAA guidelines are followed. Crash when breaking the rules, and risk your business and ability to fly.
Why are drone pilots calling for increased enforcement against a rogue drone pilot? What is the true goal in shaming a pilot for flying over people. Who truly benefits from posting these shaming stories? The FAA is literally going to legalize flying over people very soon, in 2023 in fact. Is the pilot flying into the stadium really that dangerous? What is the worst that could happen?
It should be noted that there are very real security issues with a drone flying over large groups of people. Without going into detail, it would take more than a drone to cause serious danger. There are real potential issues with flying over crowds, as drones can carry other objects that could cause serious harm. A drone is like a tool, a resource…akin to fire. Fire can be used to heat up your home, and it can be used to burn it down. How will you choose to use it?
In this particular case with a drone flying over a football game, nothing seems to have been carried by the aircraft. So back to the question, what is the worst that could happen? The drone could fly over the crowd, lose propulsion and crash into the crowd. Yet we know from the FAA, and thanks to Virginia Tech… that the actual damage inflicted to a human wouldn’t be life threatening (although in an imperfect world anything is possible).
This small drone would be unable to cause “serious injuries,” by itself. Now if that drone were to hit some object, then yes… the problems could cascade. Yet, this didn’t happen. How dangerous was the drone flying over people, when flight over people is about to be allowed?
Drones are actually intrinsically safe. Drone pilots are the safest aviators in the world, when you look at the numbers.
So what is the worst that could happen with this incident (this specific incident)?
The media could get a hold of the story and showcase how dangerous drones could be. Why would drone pilots be sharing the story all over the internet? Wouldn’t the pilots just be perpetuating their own problems?
If the media lambasted the pilots, drone pilots would ultimately see increased regulation. Drone pilots would also see an increase in aggressive bi-standers, questioning our operations. Drone pilots have been accosted before. Negative drone news would only correlate to an increase in drone pilots being accosted. So why are drone pilots sharing the story hand-over-fist?
Many pilots argue that drone pilots are held to a high standard, and all drone pilots should be held to that standard. Is that standard a real construct, or something created by something online? I’ve seen pilots, manned and unmanned, break the rules all the time… I’ve even personally witnessed pilots complain of other pilots, then break the rules themselves. Pilots claim rogue drone pilots are dangerous, but then ignore the rules themselves.
Well, how elastic are the rules and how elastic should they become? Pilots argued this Raiders drone was dangerous and flying over people when rule followers aren’t allowed to fly over people. Yet we see countless instagram videos of drones flying over people. We know that drone companies apply for waivers to waive certain parts of a given regulation. Countless companies are allowed to fly over people right now.
Personally, I know of a few companies that have applied for waivers. In a few specific cases, they told me the FAA denied the waiver, but granted research flights. Allowing the company to waive the rules, but not officially. These companies stated that the FAA granted the research waiver, under the condition that the company share the research data and only then will the FAA provide the waiver. Selective enforcement or allowing for innovation?
Meaning the FAA is allowed to select companies to avoid the rules. Why? Probably to gain data and information to discern the effectiveness of particular rules or waivers. This is probably done in the name of innovation. When should the FAA choose to enforce the rules against pilots and how effective is an enforcement strategy?
There are also well documented cases of drone pilots just completely avoiding all rules. Take Hunter Kowald, who effectively built a drone that he takes flight on. Read that carefully. He built a drone, that he rides on top of it. Think of a surf board, for the air. Should the FAA come down hard with enforcement, or empower the innovation that could have a huge impact on our economy?
Yet there are no rules about Urban Air mobility, because a pilot must always be onboard an aircraft. The FAA does issue experimental air worthiness certificates, but most UAV innovators have had to travel internationally to fully test their product. Is this air-board an experimental aircraft? Is he pushing the envelope for innovation? Don’t we live in a country that allows for inventors to change the way we live?
It is certainly feasible for so called innovation to cross a line. As Hunter has shown by attaching flame throwers and automated bows to a UAV. Weaponizing an aircraft is a clear breach of Federal law (49 USC 46505).
So, the important question: At what point does enforcement interfere with innovation? What is more important enforcement or innovation, and how can we empower both? How can we also allow for innovation of an air-board but stop the weaponization of them?
Without innovation we wouldn’t have airplanes to take our happy butts to the vacation destination of our dreams. The United States also has a track record of getting in the way of innovation. Arguably, the USA has developed some of the best innovations and hurt others who tried to do it themselves. Take the Wright Brothers. The first to aviation and now on millions of license plates in North Carolina.
Do you know where the Wright Brothers sold their first aircraft? It was in France, due to the heavy regulatory burden the brothers were facing with the US government. The true irony lies within the license plate.
North Carolina claims to be the birthplace of aviation, ahh what a picture of utopia…. Yet North Carolina is the only state to defy federal regulations, and the Federal Aviation Administration. As NC created their own registration and licensing system for drones and drone pilots.
When will our country of laborious, endlessly propagated laws allow for true innovation? At what point does rent seeking behavior protect industries but squash innovation?
Back to the story at hand…
Sure this drone pilot clearly broke multiple FAA regulations when he flew, in controlled airspace and in a TFR. The drone pilot is clearly violating numerous regulations. Albeit as other drone pilots call for his crucifixion, these same pilots may be shooting themselves in the foot. Or opening the door to defamation lawsuits. By throwing the first stone, aren’t they throwing a proverbial boomerang?
When should the FAA enforce? Should a lack of enforcement be considered a good thing? Could a lack of enforcement trigger a wave of innovation? Many would argue it would just empower the crazies.
How can we protect ourselves from extremist and yet empower innovation? Will Remote ID, if it survives, allow for more automated enforcement? Would that really help the industry or just hurt the rule-abiding pilots?
Let us know what you think!
PS: Yes, we know drones can be very dangerous and are used in nefarious ways. So how does the FAA allow for innovation and protect the public?
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