Patrick Egan ARC roundup

Patrick Egan

For those of you that have followed the saga, some of this may seem repetitive and for those who have not, there may be some enlightenment. Since May, I have had the task of representing the would be “commercial operator.” I had the very able assistance of the RCAPA board and some sponsors who have financed my travel to and from the meetings around the country. Since the end of March, I’ve spoken with people from around the globe who have an interest in my views pertaining to the ARC’s outcome and potential effect on the industry.  Anyway, it is over and the time has come to realize the takeaway.  There can only be speculation as to our lot, based upon interactions with the other stakeholders.  I can only speculate as I assume we will never get a copy of the final recommendation.

For those who may have missed the list that has been posted by some with the names and affiliations of the ARC membership, the ARC was populated by NAS stakeholders more than sUAS stakeholders, and in fact we were at the disadvantage both in numbers and ideology. While it is true that there where proponents of the technology and its uses among the participants, by-in-large those members had their own agendas. Nothing really new here as this has been the experience of those few who do not view the challenges through the rose colored filter of the well funded company business plan.

I maximized on the participation that the association and myself could afford. Without the luxury of staff and a six figure budget, my participation was limited in scope and breadth. I neither chaired (nor offered to chair), and did not serve on all of the various committees. Several opportunities were missed as I was tasked with projects. Without the aforementioned resources I knew that our grasp was limited and as such took on more than I should have but not less than was necessary.   I had reached out to the community for assistance, but came to understand that it is very difficult to motivate people when you can’t tell them what they will be doing, or why.

I spent these last 10 plus months doing what I could, in what I thought was realistic to further the proliferation and use of this technology by small business.  At times that was saying things no one dared say, or challenging unfounded misgivings and fears based on what at best could be deemed false impression. This was not a process of science, but rather one based on emotions. Ignorance in this instance is as in any case as limiting as it is frustrating. Here we have the dubious distinction of suffering from compounded misconceptions (a condition that would appear to be pandemic in D.C.); not only do we face the taxing uphill battle associated with the technology and it’s integration, but also the complexities of self funding and then running a small business.  During my tenure as the RCAPA “integration czar”, I’ve heard some really interesting notional aspersions casually thrown about. Some of the last conversations I had with peoples backs were about their obvious lack of operational experience. That was proven by espoused feelings meant to be taken as fact. One could argue that a couple of folks lacking that type of operation experience is to be expected within such a large and complex process. Sure, but in this case it was/is the norm and to add insult to injury is how the entire effort is run. Yes, you got it, it permeates the integration effort, from those who would regulate to those under contract to assist and even the standards groups who are populated with white collar industry representing the aforementioned business plan as well.

Some have suggested, marked cards in a stacked deck? That is for you the reader to deduce as I, the writer, want to remain as objective and upbeat as humanly possible.

I will however attempt to better illustrate our plight through allegory. A demonstration was held at Quantico for the SRM (Safety Risk Management) panel (few operators here either), to get a first hand view of different systems and platforms in flight. During the course of my unremarkable demonstration (god be praised), I did a lost link procedure.  For the “Cracker Barrel”, this consists of a slight and slow right spiral descending glide if signal from the transmitter is lost. With the transmitter turned back on, I regained control and preformed a hand catch to the rouse and eruption of cheers and clapping from those in attendance. It’s not at all that I didn’t appreciate the accolades for my fine piloting skills, but after all it was a hand catch of a Slow Stick!?! As most of us already know, the feat has all of the inherent difficulty and danger posed in performing some offhanded parlor trick (more akin to Dumb and Dumber then say William S. Burroughs.)   So, to surmise, what one should deduce from the story is that those at the forefront haven’t been exposed to too much in the way of small non-militarized systems. There are other examples, but I believe that this one best illustrates what can be called system and operational, “misconceptions.”

Many would agree that the lack of comprehensive action would necessitate the formation of a new association. The downside is that thinking is generally followed up with the insinuation that those with the idea (and company financing), head it up; this notion lacks originality and is apt to fail as they really only amount too little more than well healed front groups. Don’t misconstrue these points as sour grapes because I have this burning desire to be the UAV guy, or do I begrudge anyone for wanting to be the UAV guy, it is just a notion that past experience (five years and insight into the past ten), has shown simply does not work. The integration effort in its entirety is woefully lacking in any semblance of objectivity.  Am I the only one who finds it hard to imagine that airspace regulators are going to take the company front man’s claims of product safety at face value? No, some of us realize that notion will never really result in anything, but a feigned smile and a possible nod all the while thinking what does this guy take me for? Much ado about nothing as we play what amounts to a game (if you will) that has all of the subtle nuances of Kabuki. Inanity from all sides with the regulator playing to the gallery while moving the targets around, and those that would be regulated in turn dance around the issues as not to upset their positions or say anything that may cast doubt on a lucrative contract. My participation (not alone here), was indeed a break from the status quo as I have no agenda besides advocating for those who would use this technology to put food on the table! This has become a maxim or mantra if you will and one that is undeniably without ulterior motives and far beyond anything yet mustered by the vendors and or existing trade associations. No one seems to understand the power of grass roots objectivity or embrace the change that it can effect. Or maybe, like most other policy groups that are averse to finding real solutions as they only serve to end income streams and or purpose.   One other inherent complication in working with these types of groups is the “all give and no take” that permeates and is all too common a filter. Filter? Yes, thanks for the information we filter it to what we like and give it to other folks who sell it to the FAA with nary a thanks beyond what could be termed perfunctory mention.  There’s an appropriate saying that fits here but, objectivity dictates that I not use it.

The possible outcome(s)

For the hobbyist…

As part of the model subgroup I believe I am justified in discussing my lack of enthusiasm for what is more than likely in store for the (non AMA member) RC hobbyist. It is my belief that this hobby by-in-large is safe and in no way posses the menace that would justify the proposed recommendation and had staunchly argued the affirmative. It is in my estimation that this stakeholder (and all without adequate representation and I’m not saying the AMA didn’t try), will very much likely be staring down the barrel of AC 91-57 becoming the law of the land. There I will let it lay as what happens now is the purview and domain of the AMA who has an ongoing dialog with the FAA. My advice- join up, knock off any infighting and be prepared to wholeheartedly support their effort.

Update: I have become aware of a notice going out to military installations about all hobby RC flying having a hard ceiling of 400’ AGL.  (Warp speed?)

For the small operator…

Not much here as far as a business plan is concerned and more importantly great detriment to the technology and to any as yet proposed data collection concepts. It all came down to the last day and in a culmination of what I view as participant apathy, abandonment by the vendors and the views of the manned interests. Regrettably, this left us with little support for anything remotely resembling viability. That is not to say the vendors got too much in the way of goodies, but they can obviously and more easily deal with the hurdles and hoops put before them. Viability in this instance will put you in direct competition with the vendors or outside of the law. Again, not so much as a “back of the envelope” risk analyses, so science was replaced by feelings. Very disappointing to someone who can see the inherent benefits of this type of remote sensing.

For the technology as a whole…

I fear that the ramifications of these recommendations, if they become law, will have far reaching and global effects. I’ve been using the analogy of a bad tree pruning – something that doesn’t kill the tree, but has done irreparable damage and is an aberration we proponents will have to live with for many years to come. I do believe, and have mentioned, that by locking out the law abiding operators, the FAA runs the real risk of upsetting the status quo as far as regulating the NAS is concerned. In reality and as stated, it may already be too late. We have witnessed a growing apathy toward the “policy clarification” and a lack of an enforcement plan (comprehensive or otherwise) and the proliferation of low cost autopilots and other fly beyond VLOS appliances. The technology is here to stay and the manned community, like it or not, will continue to share the NAS with sUAS (as they are called) and in reality, with capabilities far beyond the comfort levels of most involved.

As some of us have tried to assess what is to be done and figure out the proverbial “go forward” plan I have come to realize several things; some will continue to fly either wrapped in the vogue, “come and get me” and who’s ranks are joined by those who until recently suffered from the malady of regulatory denial.  If that weren’t enough, I see many of my contemporaries accepting of this regulatory calamity in what can only be likened to a form of Stockholm syndrome. Many have shared their ideas as how to best move forward and I agree with some facets of most but, believe that for the most part, they lack an overall plan or funding necessary to be successfully executed. As I have stated the economy phase of this fight is over and moving forward now would require camaraderie, heretofore unseen in these circles.  While the outcome of the NPRM remains to be seen (be under no false pretenses as the FAA has absolutely no obligation to heed or implement the comments from that process), I find it difficult to muster optimism, historically these interactions have only lead to disappointment an ennui .

Possible actions…

Where you can fly will hinge on proximity to airports mainly. Possible retaliation would be to support municipality recommendations to close GA airports. These airports are costly and could be turned into parks or sold off to developers for a revenue generating tax base. Modernization and future infrastructure upgrades will cost money we don’t have and the suggestion should be that users pay instead of us disenfranchised taxpayers. Get involved in efforts that require GA not be subsidized by taxpayers and reiterate that users pay their own way through user fees. Security, with the recent international incident with the Cessna would appear to be an issue not just reserved for UAS anymore.

Lawsuits are another viable option as the FAR(s) appear to have more holes than a wheel of Swiss cheese. The downside is that we as a group would need to come together and pony up some real money and then rally behind the burnt offering.

Work the global integration effort and hope that the Europeans come up with something better i.e. CAP 722 or EUROCAE WG-73. It is a very distinct possibility that the Europeans may come out on top and in front. The one wavers back and forth as a yes, no, maybe so, but if they do come out first, the FAA will no longer rest on the laurels of leader.

Lobbing efforts are also another avenue for us to explore however, not with a firm. We had pretty good success with our congressional contacts as they are sympathetic to the plight of their constituents. The vendor interests have difficulty as they are one week lobby for large military contracts and the next tell the woeful tales of the financial hardships endured by the lack of regulation.

Sit back and wait for things to run their course. There are some who insist that the FAA will do the right thing however, I just don’t see anything resembling that from where I sit. We may just have wait for them to realize that in this instance, they dropped the ball and the public has outrun their jurisdiction in a manner reminiscent of the citizens band radio regulatory failure of the 1970’s. (Enforcement usually consisted of drunken bootleggers swapping 20’s with Uncle Charlie.) Unfortunate, as the law abiding types and folks who could benefit from the technology are really those who stand to suffer.

At the time of writing this piece, I have yet to receive a copy of the final recommendation for review and comment. That said, I have to go on the document that was diced up and had most of what we worked to put in it over the past ten months summarily taken out.  I had a brief chat with Mr. Davis and further stated that the RCAPA could in no way endorse what was unfolding and/or a product that lacked viability for small operators. Furthermore, I stated that I doubt that the recommendation(s) will have the desired effect and more than likely will prove detrimental to the overall safety of the NAS.

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Patrick Egan
Editor in Field, sUAS News Americas Desk | Patrick Egan is the editor of the Americas Desk at sUAS News and host and Executive Producer of the sUAS News Podcast Series, Drone TV and the Small Unmanned Systems Business Exposition. Experience in the field includes assignments with the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command Battle Lab investigating solutions on future warfare research projects. Instructor for LTA (Lighter Than Air) ISR systems deployment teams for an OSD, U.S. Special Operations Command, Special Surveillance Project. Built and operated commercial RPA prior to 2007 FAA policy clarification. On the airspace integration side, he serves as director of special programs for the RCAPA (Remote Control Aerial Photography Association).