The Backroom Drone Deals Are No Bueno
Everyone associated with the airspace integration effort is in strong agreement that what this industry needs is more education! It is with that in mind that I write this piece. We are building a legacy as a commercial community, and one day our future operators will ask, how did this catastrophe happen?
I don’t want to sound maudlin, but the FAA reauthorization is coming up quick and the stakeholder, as well as the lesser, lauded associated subgroups, placeholder, bag-holder or “other”, had better figure out what they are going to do. First order of business is identifying where one fits into the strata of represented participation for public or private remaking.
The Stakeholder has enough money or lobbying horsepower to be openly included in the process. Just because this group is moneyed in no way implies that the FAA has installed anything more than some pseudo-expertise. Contrarily, most are woefully unqualified in matters of aviation, UAS, public rulemaking, or listening to their lobbyists. Some of these self-proclaimed experts are usually advocating for more regulation. The associated logic is to ensure mandates for their VC-funded goods and services that are currently without markets. In VC speak this is commonly called scaling.
The Placeholder is a significant zero; this constituency group is the one that the regulator and stakeholder feign concern for. This group is the one that everyone will say they are selflessly spending their time and money and hard work for.
The Bag-Holder is the largest constituency group and more often than not left out of the public rulemaking process altogether. This group preoccupies itself with keeping the doors open and putting food on the table until the viability of his or her investment has been bled white.
The Other may or may not include the guy at the Mall running the drone kiosk and other subgroups heretofore not included in the process. Comprehending what constituency group best describes you or your particular condition should help make this an easier read.
The self-proclaimed drone “advocates”, sometimes also referred to casually as “experts,”, are in full capitulation mode after losing millions of dollars from what many are calling the Drone Registration Task Force debacle. Thank goodness the Taylor Court ruling has mitigated some of the regulatory nastiness. Even with that good news, the apparatchiks are in DC bootlicking their way out of a fortune and what is left of their collective professional credibility. The description may sound rude, but what’s being consensused on for the affiliated stakeholder and unaffiliated constituency subgroups is even ruder.
We see many of the same names and affiliations again and again. So much so that the community is starting to fondly refer to the committee members as “the usual suspects”, all like happy little elves working together to agree on haphazard policy based on junk science, wild conjecture and the sincerest feelings. Some might disagree with this assessment. Many have moved on from simply being in the air Pot O’ Gold to the prize and answer to the $82 billion (or $124 billion if you are the optimistic type) question being BVLOS. If the viability of this industry is waiting on BVLOS and full NAS integration it could take another decade of funding rounds to make happen. The way the Drone company CEO’s are dropping, I don’t know that many of these high flying unicorns (AKA unicornos by our friends south of the border) will make 2018.
The recurring list of names attached to these catastrophes for reference –
Just recently the FAA announced a new Identification ARC that was chartered in May. While it lists the affiliations, it fails to list the names or who will be the industry co-chair warmer. I think the FAA has no choice but to be a little more discerning with what “experts” they install as the track record has a few blemishes which have eroding public trust and irritated folks in Congress. Members of the aforementioned groups and or the public need not worry about who is looking out for them, as the meetings are all private.https://www.faa.gov/news/updates/media/UAS_ID_ARC_Confirmed_Membership.pdf
My poor old Aunt Connie didn’t make the cut this go-round, but I guess the FAA has got to keep these things lean and mean if they hope to get things done?? ;-)
So let’s take a look at the historical “Backroom Deal” scoreboard –
(Note: The following is abridged or you’d be staring down the barrel of a novel)
1. 2012 Reauthorization
Aircraft Definition –
You have to remember that back in 2011 when the FAA reauthorization was drafted up, AUVSI was told by members of Congress to put together whatever language they liked (within reason) for insertion into the bill. Now you would think an opportunity like that would have been seized upon by the world’s largest and oldest advocacy group to come in for the big win (now Big Wynne) for the entire industry. Instead, the submitted language reads more like a Christmas wish list for a few of the legacy Diamond and Platinum members. I guess they felt like they deserved it as they were paying a whopping $11K a year in dues to drive the bus. I have no Idea what DJI ponied up to fast-track a board position for DJI’s VP of Policy and Legal Affairs.
The landscape was much different then –
First and foremost, folks at the FAA warned everyone not to use the nomenclature “aircraft, ” and we must assume that the advice fell on deaf ears or ran counter to the business plan because aircraft get certified, and aircraft pilots need licenses. I wasn’t privy to the sage advice until after the bill passed.
Test sites –
I advised the AUVSI language gatherer that it would never work as there were no consequences (financial cuts), for any missed deadlines and or “fun” ding for any of the grandiose plans, including full September 2015 NAS integration. Sadly, many of the folks and States that went after the Test Sites (except New York) had no idea there was no “fun” ding associated with it. There was already a test site (New Mexico State University) and try as they may, the business plan wouldn’t pencil. That didn’t stop AUVSI from trying to power broker deals. The Executive leadership called a star-chamber meeting for prospective test site “winners” (members only) and the FAA. Everyone was there to talk turkey with the glaring exception of the FAA. Even worse was the big idea the CEO had after the big no show: we could have six test regions.
Test sites were one of the biggest red herrings to come out of the sUAS ARC, a fourth category that would allow vendors to set up their own test sites run amok. Only folks with the private test sites that worked out that I know for sure was Insitu. They had a COA to fly out of a Class G airport (Boardman) to train (certify) civilian military contractors at $40k a seat. Those were the day’s friends when military drone programs were cost plus, and there was enough slop in the trough that everyone could wet their beaks. Well, not everyone, I contacted the FAA and asked for the same deal so I could open Professor Patrick’s Drone Flight School, but I guess there’s a secret handshake or something cause it never came through. :(
The Under 4-pound exemption –
Yes, your author submitted the exemption language that www.RCAPA.net put together with ALPA and AOPA (coming out of the sUAS ARC 2008/09) into the 2012 reauthorization to AUVSI. I told them that if they weren’t going to use it, I would find my own sponsor, but they ran out the clock. The gatherer told me that the executive leadership rejected the language, as it did not take all of the membership into consideration. I don’t know what happened here as I also got pushback on the 4 pounds from industry visionaries complaining it wasn’t enough weight. So, we all had to wait another four years. Whatever the case, the firebrand compiler was picked up by Amazon to help fast-track drone delivery, the executive VP got fired, and the man in charge left for greener pastures with fewer protestors.
2. The AUVSI economic forecast –
Not even good birdcage liner, I’d be concerned that any unfortunate bird inadvertently exposed to it for even a short period may suffer unduly from the wrong
impression. Once and for all, the numbers for Ag were extrapolated from the Japanese farming model (average farm size is 4.7 acres) and overlaid onto the U.S. model. (average farm size 490 acres). However wild the numbers are and how good Executive leadership thinks they did (including the new guy who says he is a recovering economist), it is proving to be far off the mark and devastating to some who’ve bet it all on the farm. Now they like to call the weapons grade bullshit “political” numbers, something they could use to persuade Congress with. I understand that there are times when persuasion is appropriate, but now that forecast is met with scorn and ridicule.
The financial realities do not stop other groups including the FAA from using the telephone numbers as a baseline to go hog wild with their own fantasy forecasts. Those numbers are trotted out and employed for fear monger based FACA’s, report sales or website clicks all to the detriment of the drone industry.
3. The Registration Task Force –
What a disaster that turned out to be, all under the guise of education and accountability. Here is one instance where the telephone numbers were trotted out and employed for some court confirmed wham bam thank you, ma’am, arbitrary policy sideshow.
The experts and advocates, many of them attorneys, were tripping all over themselves to get invited to the Task Farce even though they had no data or credible evidence to bolster or defend any industry positions. It was all feelings, and the lack of planning and preparation left them with no alternative but to run up the white flag of consensus. The bag-holder representatives from the box stores were cool with whatever as long as it didn’t happen at the point of sale.
The whole charade was based on a report ginned up by MITRE that basically concluded that 250-gram projectiles from explosions could be fatal. Even a cursory view of the MITRE report painted an abstract picture of absurdity. I asked 3DR’s representation (now the unaffiliated, but sometimes rumored to be indirectly on the DJI payroll DAC industry co-chair warmer) why she would let the government liken her company’s products to shrapnel from explosions-is that what you sell? I had heard 3DR products had reliability issues, but I didn’t know things were that bad.
You didn’t get much better from the DJI guy even though DJI was tipped off months in advance about registration and that it was a setup. I told him the same thing; I would have never sat there and let the FAA liken the company paying my hefty salary’s products to projectiles and shrapnel. I would have said “You’ll have to come up with some science-based data (like the ASSURE findings or better) that is relevant and in line with how our customers use our products. Until that happens I cannot in good confidence be a party to destroying the fledgling global industry, have a nice day.”
Why anyone with half a brain would have gone along with that junk science is beyond reason. The rest must have thought they dodged a bullet at the point of sale or naively thought they’d sell their cellphone app goods and services to the FAA. The joke is on you the end-user as the FAA had purportedly awarded the registration contract even before the charade kicked off. If that is truly the case, some folks were duped into throwing their consensus vote away. We can only assume that the concept of material density as well as the injury scale was lost on the consensus givers who are not engineers or physicians.
Even with the educational full court press, enforcement and knowing before you fly sightings are up. Adding insult to debacle injury, documents FOIA’ed by Mr. Taylor indicate that no enforcement actions relied on registration, so the problem did not get solved!
Either the Emperor has some new clothes or no one has figured out that the FAA had a huge compliance failure with millions of drones sold and only 800K +/- registered. The wild speculation every droner has five drones to make the estimates pencil is the icing on the canard cake.
Participants have tried to justify or cover their cowardly actions telling me that “I wasn’t privy to the sidebar and private conversations, or that I am not in the know and just how bad it could have been,” insinuating that I am as clueless as they are. They can think whatever they want, but I don’t believe a less than 250-grams amnesty and the registration fee only being $5 was much to celebrate. It is doubtful that the larger drone manufacturers (mainly Drone Manufacturers Alliance members) are celebrating the hundreds of millions of dollars in lost sales from the “earn” as you learn public policy registration exercise has cost them. They only silver lining the community got out of this doom cloud is a list of who has proven themselves as unqualified to represent anyone.
You can match those on the roster to a catalog of debacles either already or soon to be torn apart in the courts or investigated. If I were you, I’d ferret them out at the next drone selfie show and thank them for their short-sighted and injudicious efforts on behalf of either yourself or the end-user community.
Rulemaking is supposedly meant to be a “public process!” Regulating the RC hobby (Part 101) was bad and appears to have been consensused upon by folks with no vested interest other than lining their pockets at the expense of your freedom! Sure, it was overturned, but the FAA doesn’t like to lose so get ready for them to revisit this position.
It used to be easier to discern motivations, as it was good old-fashioned greed tempered by at least something noble like supporting the warfighter that fueled the beast, but now it’s a little more complicated, as folks also want to be worshiped for their failures.
This article is a foundation for future pieces on the private “public” rulemaking process.