Taint It A Shame ASTM – drone standards

One of the new FAA mantras trifecta is “standards,” the other two are “we’re open for business” and “bring us a safety case.” I’ve touched on these before, and I’ll be writing another article addressing the absurdity (the good Lord knows we need some FAA leadership) as soon as I get done counting up my share of the 82 billion drone dollars that was forecasted by the world’s largest unmanned systems advocacy group, et al.  

What the heck does all of that have to do with shame and taint? Well, I am glad you asked. A loyal sUAS News reader was kind enough to send me this meeting F38 Sponsorship Form.

What does sponsorship of a standards meeting have to do with anything? Well, nothing if this were a charitable association, but it is not. Even though ASTM has a 501 designation, it costs participating members $75/ year and organizational members $400/year to have direct committee participation. The $75/year and work go on standards perpetually or at least as long you plan on using mandated standards as part of your operation. The only charitable contribution is the IP that you are giving away.

It has been over a month since I asked the ASTM (several people associated with F38) for answers to a few questions.  The only answers I got were by telephone and early on. Do other committees have sponsored meetings? The answer: no. Who has sponsored F38 meetings in the past? The answer: Google, Amazon, and Intel. Who does the Chairman (Philip Kenul) work for? One of the big companies? The answer: no, he has his own consulting firm and works for us.  Oh, that’s handy. The answer: no, he only goes to Europe to discuss standards with the groups over there (biz dev). I asked the FAA, and the responses are attributed to an FAA spokesperson and are as follows:

Q8. Why is FAA allowing ASTM to have Intel, Google, Amazon, etc. sponsor F-38 meetings?

ASTM is an International Standards Developing Organization. They operate independently of the FAA and are not funded by the FAA. This question is probably best addressed by them (ASTM).

Q9. Does the FAA Global harmonization effort include Mr Kenul’s (paid ASTM consultant) going to Europe to discuss ASTM standards with the European regulators and stakeholders?

Since ASTM operates independently of the FAA, this question is best addressed by ASTM.

I’m not saying anything illegal is going on, but what I am saying is that off-track meeting sponsorship does little to bolster or imply impartiality to the collective opinion. On the other hand, the ring of the “sponsored consensus meeting” certainly can cast a pall of sorts on the objectivity of even the best-intentioned view of equilibrium.  Gosh darn it, if that Egan guy would just stop complaining about the institutional dysfunction, and someone would adopt a standard after 13 years (almost 14) of work, use some science to define the risk drones pose to NAS, and possibly muster up some enforcement of the existing FARs, we’d all undoubtedly be flying BVLOS and saving the world with Slurpee delivery by now! I know there is no pleasing some people!

Golly, but don’t I get to make standards that will affect my industry in a fair and expedient manner? Sure, on paper and when you are paying your dues, but that is where the progress stops. When you hear the “standards” claptrap at the next meeting of the drone minds, ask yourself how many of those F38 published standards has the FAA adopted thus far. If enough people ask, they might have to make a move on adoption even though it is a veritable minefield to do so.

Sure, you can join up and start writing “consensus” standards, until you start to realize who is driving the bus. I wrote a standard for an aircraft manual, boilerplate any layperson would be able to use. I didn’t think that most folks would be able to hire a tech writing team to do up the manuals if they went with the MIL-STD 3001. I came up with a standard, missed a meeting or two, and who knows what happened to that besides a rewrite without consultation. That is fine either way because by this time we at RCAPA had figured out that this and participation with the RTCA was just busy work to keep folks occupied and off the FAA’s back. Meanwhile, the Chinese were gearing up for the “One Belt, One Road” consumer drone monopoly.  

If that wasn’t reason enough to be fed up with the ongoing federal dysfunction, the ASTM plan was to charge people $75 to see the standards that would be part of the small UAS rule everyone assumed would be part of the 2012 reauthorization (surprise). I blew a fuse, as I thought the notion was preposterous and that the idea that people would have to pay money to see what would be part of a federal regulation was un-American, if not reprehensible, and possibly unconstitutional. I’m not a constitutional law expert, but I have perused the drone isle at Best Buy on several occasions.

Poor old Jeff “Goldy” Goldfinger, chairman at the time, bore the brunt of that one, as I had to quit the catastrophe because there was no way I could be a party to what I saw as disenfranchisement for dollars. Last I had heard, after the dust-up, is that they were going to make a free online version of the standards for folks to read before the rule. It was all for naught because, as I had mentioned before, the FAA never adopted any of the published work or the RTCA stuff for that matter.  

History lesson for you rubes and/or Johnny/Janie dronie-come-lately’s, who may not know your humble author was at the ASTM F38 kick-off meeting in Reno in May of 2005. YES, it has been thirteen (almost fourteen) years since ASTM F38 was kicked off. If you look at the story photo, you will notice that the author even has hair! We were coming out of the Light Sport Aircraft (LSA) F37 ice age, and everyone was giddier than a schoolgirl about the speed in which the FAA adopted those consensus-based standards. I don’t want to take anything away from the folks who put in all of the hard work, but it wasn’t all by happenchance, as FAA Administrator Marion Blankley rode roughshod on the process until it was a done deal and she’d skedaddled for greener pastures.  

As an aside, what small business owner wouldn’t be happy paying for an employee to travel around the country and world to attend regular and off-schedule meetings for the next decade? If you know someone, please be kind enough to send them my way; I’d love to do some paid travelling. I’d have given my eyetooth to go on the ICAO RPAS junkets they used to have, especially if it is all expenses paid by the AUVSI membership.

Parallels to drones and the Light Sport Aircraft (LSA)

This information is meant as reference material and insights into the process for those thinking of joining the standards fray. The FAA estimated that 9,000 LSA would eventually be registered, thus giving General Aviation (GA) a much-needed shot in the arm. At the end of 2016, there were 4,047 registered, 400 and change of which were kit planes. Things didn’t turn out as rosy as some folks had hoped, and LSA hasn’t saved GA or even panned out in a tangible ROI for the domestic manufacturers. Cirrus is now owned by a subsidiary of the government of the Peoples Republic of China. If you need more “the FAA is open for business” or “bring us a safety case” examples, just google search “Eclipse Jet.” Poor old Vern still can’t get a break. ;-)

So, what in the heck does LSA have to do with the price of drones (or LSA) in China? Not much besides illustrating the folly of false hopes and overblown estimates. The 2018 reauthorization mentions an audit to figure out what all of this is going to cost the FAA and what the drone folks have to pay. I sure as hell don’t want to get stuck with a bill for services I’m not getting under duress. Even though I live in California where the norm is, expensive “services” and mandates that require even more money be thrown at them every election cycle or until things work like everyone “feels” they should.  #resist

Golly, are you starting to see a few possible reasons for the RC hobbyist’s going under the regulatory bus? The numbers don’t add up, and I don’t know how those 100K +/- folks are going to pony up $27 million a year to keep the UASIO Swiss watch running with or without a safety case. If you cant spread the fees around this drone (and toy aeroplane) thing may not save GA either and after all.  

The good news in all of this is, the Urban Air Mobility folks aren’t going to fall for this pre-regulate the unknown stuff.