Discerning the culture, ethos and mechanics of the FAA Unmanned Aircraft Program Office (UAPO)

Part 1

In this investigative series, the sUAS News will attempt to answer several of the UA community’s ongoing questions about the procedures and policies of the Unmanned Aircraft Program Office. These topics will include but are in no way limited to, the modus operandi, “whom” is ultimately in charge (UAPO), and what types of checks and balances are in place ensuring oversight and ultimately accountability to the public they serve.

The impetus for this series (besides being a writer with a cause) is rooted in what appears to be thinly veiled irreverence for certain affected stakeholder groups. Years ago we had collectively assumed that the slow pace and lack of progress was due in part to a newly formed office getting their sea legs. We reckoned it to be reasonable to extend the new office a certain “benefit of the doubt” for this reason. Many years on and a cataleptic situation has only suffered further decline. (Who could have imagined??) So, where does that leave us? Are we a party to a boondoggle or, a misconstrued process run by folks with the public best interest at heart?

We will start with our inquiry of the current UAS ARC. The recent delineation in where reason and reservation were unceremoniously cast to the wind. At the forefront, of curiosity is who picked the participants on what has turned out to be an iteration of an unmanned systems sector Star Chamber? Furthermore, who is accountable for the oversight of the UAS ARC’s public proceedings?

Conversations with “credible sources” from the community sketch an abstract of what amounts to a group of persons who have now proven themselves to be beyond questionable qualifications. It is purported that the framers of this private group (mainly Richard Prosek), supported by mid level management (who moved on to help out on other projects, yikes), decided whom they would allow on the controlled committee. The committee, Lord of Flies style, decided who they felt was fit for inclusion?? Leaving stakeholders to wonder if the framers action would qualify as acting in the “public’s” best interest?

Some of the initial players got to participate by affiliation; others leveraged political influence to inject themselves into the processes. At first pass, it seems a little hard to believe that things were so arbitrarily thrown together, and the reason(s) the public needs to examine the documentation. Some are wondering what if any, details may have to be omitted to get the Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety to sign off on the UAS ARC.

I was also informed that UAS ARC 2 lacked a public charter till the day first meeting was convened. The same date that is emblazoned on the charter, FOIA requested and published here at sUAS News. So, the names of the members were made public after the members had already been picked and the ARC started. Is that how rules (laws) are made?

So, who would put the (official) leg out far enough to feign a square game when the charter was a second thought? Now they are past the failsafe point; management has no choice but to hold fast and ride this debacle in Major Kong (Slim Pickens) style.

One of the many issues that need to be addressed is the how or, why  Committee members where allowed to bar certain individuals without the guidance of a public charter?

The current UAS ARC’s construct and ensuing accomplishments serve to dispel any lingering doubts that may have remained about the conspicuous lack of UAPO leadership (rebranded as the UAS Integration Office), has of its own charge. This situation, if held to the standards of the usual public process with the customary oversight and accountability afforded by law; would make its own case for the dismissal of the person who has spent the last several years running the UAPO onto the rocks. One can only assume that this was noticed internally with the office recently being rebranded, and with new leadership installed. None too soon in the estimation of many as the lack of accomplishment was becoming the subject of international embarrassment in Civil Aviation Authority circles.

While the internal turmoil plays out, the small business and academic Unmanned Aircraft community is suffering an egregious disservice by FAA upper management. Part of this investigation is to determine who in management knows what, and how objective the rest of the administration is or isn’t. Management is inadvertently allowing a few large corporations to steer decisions that will adversely affect the future of the U.S. unmanned aircraft industry. Many doubt this contrivance could or would stand up under Congressional scrutiny. I contend that, at this point, it is probably beyond the Congress and we would probably be better off sending in the NTSB, as they are the only group even remotely capable of making heads or tails out of a train wreck of this magnitude.

The UAS NAS integration process has gone on far too long for there not to be substantive reports detailing the progress made over the last several years. We as members of the public and would be end-user stakeholders have the expectation that the Federal regulatory agencies should act in our (the publics) best interest. The FAA in this case has had years to produce information highlighting both the progress and resources spent on this issue. Highlighting another FOIA request here, we will be asking for copies of the financial accounting for the UAPO (and iterations past and present) budget and allocation of taxpayer dollars. We as stakeholders, and ultimately taxpayers would like to gauge our (the publics) return on investment.

The point of investigative journalism is to act on behalf of the public’s best interest. In this case, it may take years depending upon the FAA’s resistance or willingness for transparency. This may be another instance where we suggest that the readers take action. We may need to write letters asking for dismissals and or caution the Congress not to confirm any individual who has shown apathy or worse, disdain for the public’s best interest.

Some FOIA have taken as long as 4 years to return, but hopefully the FAA will start to be a little more forthright with the public they serve.

To be continued…

 

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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).