The Drone Dealer Diaries

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There is no denying that the DoD machine stole the UAS thunder, things have become so convoluted they are now clear and not for the better. Fruition sometimes has a blunt way of telling us we were right, and unfortunately, it’s not always good news. Sure, the debacle can be directly attributable to years of complacency funded by the same DoD machine awash in taxpayer money. (It’s a good trough if you can finagle a spot.) We are also imperiled by a Civil Aviation Authority not held to any semblance of accountability, either public or politically. As if further detachment from progress is needed, the privacy issue falls from the sky as the new impediment for the FAA to gnaw through.

The FAA has in many instances proven they are darn near ineffectual with their UAS purview. Yet, somebody somewhere reckoned they should get a free whack at interpreting the Constitution. Could it be the same folks who think the Feds are still running a square game?

The butcher’s bill…

Difficult to say that we did not know this was going to happen. Some of us have been ringing the warning bell for years now. The backlash was a no-brainer and its exact manifestation and ensuing result unknown. However, the sky has been falling for years.

The DoD vendors have been working the lobby squad to get the RFP for the 80% solution that is100% funded by taxpayers. If anyone gets to grousing, they get to pull out the vetted answers (canned goods) on how $215 million is not the real price per plane. “Calm down everyone, they’re only $150 million a copy, and the prices will go way down to a very reasonable $50 million a copy as the years go by.” This would be followed up with the bemusing “would anyone like to see my commercial services business plan? For $37,500.00/hour, this honey can collect all kinds of data for farmer Brown.” To make those kind of numbers old farmer Brown would have to be growing gold bars or already be a well-healed dental floss tycoon. You start throwing those numbers around to people in the real world, and they’re going to think we are nuts. In any event, these are the types of good deals and accounting that gets a country $16 trillion plus dollars in debt.

Industrial disease…

Some of the industry groups have been spoon-fed marching orders for so long they are hardly capable of devising a fresh and/or objective thought. In some instances, the concepts promoted appear counter productive to the cause. Floating the director of the asymmetrical warfare center as the keynote speaker at the commercial UAS show prompted the author to ask representatives for confirmation of their purported pro-unmanned aviation stance.

Members from the haughty precious tiers have been running the circus straight off the business plan, and the existing product line. The insult to injury part that you knew was coming… most of us have been putting what little money we have to work lobbying for the Fortune 12 companies. You’ve got to cut them some slack though because large bonuses are in order. As we all know, King Air 350’s and custom fit golf clubs don’t grow on trees.

These systems did such a good job (or so we’ve been told) in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and other points east, they are ready to share all of that success with the American citizenry. The lovable, but obtuse DoD crew just cannot figure out why no one is vying to be the winner of the Anwar al-Awlaki be a-like contest. The no charges, no indictment no problem, riffling routine is proving a hassle with a public increasingly nostalgic for the good old days of mom, apple pie and reverence for the Constitution.

Privacy is one thing; the terrifying notion of an AGM 114P Hellfire missile dispatched by the local police department another. While that later scenario is as outlandish as it is improbable, the same could have been said of the al-Awlaki trial back in 2011. Oh wait, I forgot… there was no trial.

It is all going underground – nothing to see here…

Following the trail blazed by the commercial end-user “everybody’s doing it.” The first responders have figured out that don’t ask, don’t tell means – no problem here. It is a shortsighted business plan as they too could be operating outside of the law as well as the public’s trust. One could assume and rightly so, that for law enforcement purposes, not following the law might negate the whole purpose. With the undeniable side effect of operating in secrecy (something to hide) of breeding (more) distrust of the police (state) and government accountability in general, and that is not just for the professional protester set and or folks in Berkeley anymore.

To be fair, we cannot put the blame for any of the un-pleasantries on the vendors, but there is no denying who has been paying the freight on the blow back. Kill Chain politics confuses most, but the Overseas Contingency Operation Judge Dread judicial policy appears to get a pass from the press. Any and all personal accountably not withstanding, it’s easier for most to blame the drone, then accept buying the hype hook, line and Sinker.

What are we to do? Well, the handwringing and riding the sequestration clipped military coattails has run its course. It has succeeded in putting a once bright future in a bad light. With all of the guilt by association, we have no choice, but get out of the clown car. We need to take the industry back. The plan thus far has been to let the DoD guys work out the regulations, and that is exactly what they want you to do.

While you are toiling away on the better mousetrap, they are working on ways to make a return on their investment. As a result, we will work under rules they have endeavored to impose. In a nutshell, you will need to buy or design a system that resembles existing DoD vendor product. Even if you are successful at doing that, your aircraft will always lack the built in and hard lobbied special considerations.

Reputable business people will have to advise their customer base that the bells and whistle they are paying for, will very likely put their enterprise and planned activities outside of Federal regulations. This notion may prove tough to fit in the old business plan.

However, it happens today. Many people have either developed or purchased systems and only found out after a large capital outlay that commercial use is forbidden. Furthermore, ITAR precludes an overseas customer base. Worse are those coloring outside of the lines of reality with the often trotted out “I only charge for ground photography,” “it is all legal if I fly under 400’” or, “I have an opinion letter from an attorney that says the FAA does not regulate my airspace.” Look, once and for all… that kind of weapons grade BS only works if you happen to be DHS or a military vendor flying under a CoA and making money. Those types of double standards do not come cheap and or, without friends in very high places

What to do if you have too many Christmas Cards cluttering up the mantel…

This is a good example of the types of facts airing that gets one labeled a Flamethrower. In this industry, there is very little encouraged togetherness expressed or implied. If you pay your dues, carry the water with unquestioned obedience you get the feigned impression of belonging. Belonging consists of quietly getting to pay your dues. Start asking questions about how something came to be, or who sold us out for a few shekels, how much money execs are bringing down and folks start getting overtly nervous. Ask government managers about progress and man they get all sideways. (Makes the industry folks look grounded.) Next thing you know you will have some chucklehead bristling because you are making the otherwise enjoyable taxpayer funded junket uncomfortable. Boo Hoo… it is more than likely in your job description and why you get the check.

The solution…

This effort has been in need of a champion that can match the vendors both financially and politically. The most obvious contender would come from the technology sector. Your friends and neighbors are disinterested in the fruits of the DoD business model, and that’s not what we want either. We want to put the promise of the technology to work. The advantageous applications vary widely and are publically palatable.

It is up to us to make the right split.

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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).