FAA UAS Symposium (Fear & Loathing in DC)

FAA UAS Symposium (Fear & Loathing in DC)

During my drive to the site of the 2017 FAA UAS Symposium in Reston, Virginia today, I imagined many exciting announcements that would be made which would help foster a strong community and bring together thoughtful leaders who would impact the future of all mankind through the use of drones, which could ultimately save the world!

As soon as I had this thought, reality hit me. It all began in the lobby as I was waiting in line to get my nametag and symposium pass. Many drone expo veterans know this process all to well. As I am waiting around, I overhear a gentleman behind me say “Gotta love the lines, it lets me know I’m in the right building. The FAA must have a hand in this. Hahahah.” I turned around and told him “You should be used to waiting in lines then. This is the same building the FAA has all their airline stakeholder events.”

The hotel itself has been a hub for aviation events for more than a decade; everything from Airline stakeholders, Airline recruitment fairs, and government recruitment fairs…..the list goes on.  The guy behind me replies “Yeah, well I’m a Marine. I hurry up to wait in a line, then wait in another line to wait some more, hahaha.” This is true having been in the Army Infantry myself, I can remember the days of standing for nothing then reforming to stand for something else. I wondered, would this be a sign of today’s events or the industry as a whole?

As I walk through the lobby, I see AUVSI & AIRMAP printed on practically everything that’s not bolted down. As I climb the stairs to the conference area and open the doors, I can see that I grossly miscalculated the attendance here. Wow! I gazed the room in its entirety and there was not an empty seat in the house. I immediately thought, Am I going to end up standing the whole time? I estimated a few hundred people seated, and I knew most of them would be too scared to venture around. I was determined to get a seat for myself, and I almost knocked a guy into a camera who was filming the event in order to secure what seemed to be the last seat. I sat down at the table and made myself at home, which included pulling my laptop out and scanning the room for free drinks, water, or coffee. At this point, anything would suffice.

The opening statements were rattled off mechanically. One of my Twitter followers compared what was being said as sounding like the presenters were “reading from a script.” First, a representative from AUVSI spoke, and then they showed a large video of Secretary Chao. My first guess was that she didn’t have time for the drone community to attend the event and save the world with us. My second guess was that she had bigger fish to fry with the current infrastructure budget and reauthorization discussions that have been occurring.

Next up on the list for speaking to the crowd to welcome everyone was Bryan Wynn, the President of AUVSI. He made an effort to reassure the crowd that everything is ok, but there were some obvious challenges.

I can’t believe that the new rhetoric is that this thing our industry has problems now.  I would have thought they would have announced that years ago. He explains a pilot at the local level had gone to the FAA and requested to fly in class C airspace. The local level FAA didn’t have a problem with the flights or the methods to request the flights.

The problem was at HQ with the system that is in place for people to file. I guess what he is saying here is that the system is jammed up like it did for 333s, you would think someone would learn their lesson about how the government works. Have they ever heard of red tape? He asked for members to help him fill the gaps in communication.

Next, he spoke of waivers and suggested visiting the website in order to obtain numbers on things like night operations. In my opinion, night operations should have been included in Part 107 from day one. I’m not sure why it hasn’t they really want to make certain experienced and well-trained pilots are flying at night? If that were the case we would have practical tests or instruction standards, so my first guess is as good as any.

Now, FAA Administrator Huerta opens up with remarks about last year at Dayton home to Embry-Riddle the biggest trainer of collegiate aviation students in our nation. If you compare the location to symbolism last year was all about licensing and education. Thinking from then till now I still believe they missed the ball on training programs.

He speaks about HAI and their new drone membership; I can’t believe he didn’t mention AOPA and their drone program. Maybe it was because a decade ago ALPA and HAI lead the fight against drones based on job losses for aviation with the rhetoric that the machines were going to replace jobs.

Time for the panel who were all FAA employees at the perceivable (to the drone crowd) highest levels. As they get to talking the first thing I am hearing are all the problems and how if they solve one then the next layer presents 100 more problems. This is interesting, we can compare it to pealing back an onion’s various layers and getting more and more acid or what ever in your eye making you cry. If I was inexperienced with drones and aviation I would have though this was a time to talk about all the wins we have not “if we win then we have greater more complex problems” that seems like a bummer man.

This was getting exciting now I thought they were going to hammer down the drone community for their failed leadership or even call them out on their many failed attempts to come to a consensus on something the FAA will actually use, but no he gave praise to the DAC. He also said this was their announcement of the latest greatest hits. I guess he is trying to be cool there, but I never did understand what hits (successes) he was speaking about. He mentioned the DAC is the go between the community, industry, stakeholders and FAA. That seems like a lot of people sitting at a table to me for just these few people to be representing all those interests. He wants to drive home the industry needs to take things upon itself and the DAC is the mechanism to do that. Typically, the policy would be to contact a representative and  plead to review your problem, gain support, present facts to be examined further, then create an alert to the DAC that there is a problem or that this needs attention. I completely understand this, but if the drone industry is listening, there are better ways to approach these issues and the FAA will love you for them because we are making a solid attempt to solve their problems.

The next topics Huerta reviewed became a blur, which is not uncommon because at many expos I get drone overload, as I’m sure many attendees do. My feelings were validated by numerous texts I received from members within the crowd complained of how bored they were. This should not be an issue on the first day of  a three day long symposium.

Huerta and the panel continue speaking about topics that didn’t have much meat on the bones for the seasoned UAS folks in the crowd. The panel went over something that did finally get my attention: the mention of the DAC and Unmanned Safety Team were the venues to get the smartest people to work together and it provides a shared vision with the many issues they are trying to get accomplished. I commend them on having a second group, but where is the viability for a working group of unmanned safety experts when I know a few people that can barely fly a drone that are now on the safety team? This is puzzling and I think any of the drone experts out there should demand to become a safety team member ASAP.

The panel next speaks on manned aviation and all the great profitable organizations they have created, while still following the rules and safety measures. Wow! Finally something that seems to be getting the crowd’s attention! Let them have it, I thought.

The following quotes I overheard at the symposium seemed to be worth noting, feel free to interpret them as you please.

“The DAC is the lynchpin in the industry”

“Airspace presents challenges to integration, some airports are integrating themselves”

“The airports are concerned about security”

“There are many challenges working with people who do not know anything about airspace”

I got up and wandered out to find some free stuff that expos usually have, but I didn’t find any. I guess the freebies were slimmed back with the FAA participating. I found my seat again and the panel was still going on about how great manned aviation was and how they had outperformed the UAS industry in safety, and efficiency. I think this should be a wake up call to those who don’t know what’s safety culture or understand the aviation community’s stellar safety record. The days of having uneducated leadership in top positions should be over now, the days of even a million dollar campaign to change things is over. If you want something to happen, then we need the industry to pony up the cash to make it happen. If the five drone companies on life support don’t clue you in to the need for this industry to more than just conform, but exceed the aviation standard then there is not help for you.

The panel left us with a final thought, it was announced that there are many illegal flights per day, but no specific number was mentioned. This is going to be a big problem moving forward, the failed leadership had its turn under the last administration. Now the security of drones is at the forefront of almost all conversations. It’s not a matter of if, but when the bad actors present themselves.

I already think it is too late for some; you should sell your drones off and head home. The rest of you that have some money to toss in the ring then maybe it will be worth it. I’ll tell you a secret on how to become a millionaire in aviation: start as a billionaire. The huge corporations with drone interests are not leaving anytime soon, but they need education more than anyone else in this game right now. They have the funding to take the industry to the next level, if and a big IF here, is whom will they trust as their drone expert? Another round of snake oil and it will run this thing right into the ground. I’ll save that for another article. I’ll also leave some room for the stauncher drone reporters to report the facts and announcements with links so the industry can mill over them for hours trying to find the gold.

I will end this article with a more subtle reference to the movie, Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas. If you saw the scene where everyone turns into reptiles, you know what I mean. It’s easy to be a shining light in the darkness…

Rob Thompson

Rob Thompson is the co-founder of Falcon Foundation, a 3rd generation commercial multi engine pilot, Part 107 holder who also holds a Master of Science from James Madison University for his work in aviation system designs and technical & scientific writing. Falcon Foundation provides leading advocacy efforts in the unmanned aircraft systems industry, managing government relations, committees of association, executing legislative and regulatory strategies and creating law through the corresponding legislative committees. By working independently on advocacy issues, educating the clients on public policy issues quickly, and by engaging team members to facilitate successful results. Client policy issues will include aviation regulation, unmanned aircraft systems, Part 107 waivers, the regulatory process, and industry safety concerns. Client groups include aviation professionals, unmanned aircraft systems, and operators, both commercial and hobbyists, and non-aviation business sectors, including small business service and manufacturing sectors.