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The Lost Decade

I was finally able to meet FAA UASIO Director Earl Lawrence in person at the NASA UAM GC meeting in Seattle. I know you are probably scratching your heads saying, “Wow it took you that long? I met him at such and such show.”

Please understand, I don’t go to the carpetbagger shows because the misinformation and vacuous content is detrimental to the industry that I am a part of. Realize that they offer to pay me to attend and I still say “no”! That doesn’t mean that I haven’t written emails or left messages for Mr. Lawrence. However, I guess he is just too busy with other business and public appearances to talk to the little people.

I introduced myself and straight away told him about my goals, business, jobs and STE(A)M education. I am not selling any airplanes, parts, or services, nor am I lobbying. The only thing I can think is that these notions are so far out of the norm that it is unimaginable to those close to and ensconced in this process. I further explained that I am primarily concerned with the future domestic industry and policy (or lack thereof) that has facilitated a Chinese consumer drone monopoly. It appears that the conventional DC wisdom amongst the regulator and the lobbyists is that the monopoly is due to Chinese manufacturing prowess, and it sounds plausible. But you cannot discount the damage done by a 10-year ban vigorously defended by the dubious safety of the NAS platitudes.

The facts are that the U.S. had a ten-year (being generous with only ten years but we don’t want to go down the Moore’s law rabbit hole) lead on the rest of the world in unmanned aircraft systems. The February 2007 ban made commercial UAS illegal for what I like to call the lost decade. The regulator was obtusely crowing about the safety of the NAS while they knew full well that everyone and their brother were flying BVLOS at night, over people, and around critical infrastructure, controlled airspace, and in the DC FRZ. It was a poorly executed and highly improbably ruse. Even now there is talk about the safest NAS in the world, and we all know folks are out having a fiesta flying anywhere they like pretty much with impunity from enforcement. Why are there no catastrophes is a story for another time, but I encourage everyone reading to ponder why that might be.    

Sure, manufacturing is a factor, but ten years ago the best and the brightest in leadership roles at the various United States Government agencies—including but not limited to the DoD, DoJ, FAA, NOAA, NASA—didn’t believe the Chinese would be able to produce anything even remotely as sophisticated as a UAV—so much so that they tried to laugh me out of the conference at NASA Ames.

You have to understand that this wasn’t some one-off cocktail party; this was a meeting explicitly dealing with unmanned aircraft airspace integration. Again, we were talking about chance encounters of one or two unmanned aircraft in the airspace. I have been sick and tired of the one-off unmanned-aircraft-in-the-airspace assumption for more than a decade. I stood up and said, “This makes no sense what so ever,” and “What are you going to do when the thousand-dollar Chinese UAV shows up?” The room roared with laughter and doubled down that the cost in some cases would even be lower and the prices and sophistication of COTS equipment were already very capable. Most of this was explained in more detail in the “Don’t Wing Loong Me, Bro” story.

In hindsight, it is easy to see how everyone was primarily focused on the “Big Iron,” as that was where the big money was.  At the time the cost of Global Hawks was in the hundreds of millions and the General Atomics stuff in the tens of millions. Budgets for test flights were huge and reduced the interest in the little stuff or the toys.  I contend that one of the reasons integration took so long is that every meeting started with about five to ten minutes of small(s) talk and immediately went to the big iron and big budgets.

The previous example was not the only time I was ridiculed and lampooned for believing in the power and proliferation of the smalls. Around the same time, I was also a member of the AUVSI Airspace Advocacy Committee. After disagreements with committee leadership that included a future Google burrito delivery guy (who got fired), assured me that there would never be any money in small UAS. I got ghosted, and that, as I was recently reminded, was before ghosting existed as a thing.

Another relevant subject in the lost-decade-plus discussion is that of Standards. Standards were mentioned as a way for the industry to have expedient and meaningful input on UAM. I stood up and went to the mic for the last question of the event. In this instance, I made reference to the ASTM F-38’s thirteen, almost fourteen years of standards work (kickoff meeting was May 2005). My question was, after the countless person-hours invested, how many of these standards have been adopted by the FAA? The FAA answer (drumroll): none!

I said that it is impossible for a small businessperson to participant in something for over a decade on his or her own dime, and that is coming from a guy who has spent countless hours and tens of thousands of dollars of his own money on this. The Airspace integration effort has to be a two-way street, and this industry is owed much by the regulator (FAA). Mr Lawrence did say that we have new mandates that will make it easier for the adoption of standards. I did remind everyone that we had a huge mandate, the September 2015 Congressional mandate for NAS integration that came and went.  

After the meeting, I was wondering why the FAA would set everyone to work on the ASTM, RTCA, etc. standards if there wasn’t a clear mechanism to adopt? There is an ASTM F-38 story in the hopper. I am waiting for a reply on a few questions about sponsored meetings and paid consultants. Stay tuned on Twitter @theDroneDealer.    

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