Full NAS Integration And The New False Hope

Drone airspace integration and what not to do if you want a thriving industry.

When I was in China speaking at the World UAV Federation symposium, I said, “Whatever you do, do not emulate the U.S. airspace integration effort, unless you are not interested in making money.” It took about ten or so seconds to get translated, and uproarious laughter ensued. Most of it wasn’t meant to be a joke except for the “making money” part because they already knew they were killing it with consumer drones. Military drones are up and coming, but no one likes to admit that reality.  

It had dawned on me that several of my last stories were incomplete, as the history lessons didn’t include a retelling of the thriving drone industry before the FAA’s arbitrary policy clarification of 2007. This flourishing commercial drone industry included all of the new applications we have now, including ag, movies, TV, law enforcement, SAR scientific research, NASA flight sciences, volcano monitoring, endangered species, weather, climate change, construction, real estate, mining, and ranching. So yes, the cows coming home is covered as well as Tad McGeer and Andy von Flotow’s transatlantic flight in 1998 with Aerosonde! All of that was being done with commercial third-party liability insurance—flying BVLOS, over people, at night, and in controlled airspace, including Class B if you called the tower, and all blessed by the ATO in D.C. We’re not talking about working with selfie-drones here either; we are talking about aircraft with 14’ wingspans, 35’ blimps, Ravens, and ScanEagles. Yes, we even had some of the same problems making the DAAS® concept scale than as we do now. #noway

After February 13, 2007, this was just a rumour. Maybe this, like many of the industry follies, is just buried and ignored, and folks hope you won’t remember them as the expert making balloon animals while the integration effort went Petrified Forest. There was a huge leadership vacuum, as all the advocacy the AUVSI could muster for the U.S. industry was a “Don’t Say Drone” hashtag, and what about my husband’s consulting contract? Remember that when those clowns pass the shoe for membership dues to pay Wild Turkey’s $400k a year good money after bad salary. Some of these parlor tricksters are still lurking in the shadows (salaried) if you know where to look.

Before 2007 you had to have some level of expertise to be part of the integration process. I’d say the delineation was at the end of the UAPO days when the nomenclature changed, as did the rock star status when the moneyed companies took notice and lobbied their way into the process. The devolution of expertise was part of the “there is no way we’re not going to make the September 2015 NAS integration mandate” sideshow. Who remembers Gary’s light-hearted Miss-O’-Matic? I knew we were in real trouble when the MPAA (Motion Picture Association) rep insisted that movie industry drones were safe because they had GPS on them. I asked if they had any data to support her assertions and she got up and said, “I’m not on trial here” and stormed out of the room.

Now, little more than a visit to the drone aisle at Best Buy and some VC money qualifies you as an SME for an FAA- or NASA-sponsored integration committee. So what if you didn’t know about flight services last year! No worries amigo: you are the new ATC #UTM expert. So what if your company didn’t have paying customers two years ago! Last year you were acquired by a fortune 500, and now you’re embedded with NASA as the UAM expert, baby! Golly, why would anyone in his or her right mind do this? Simple: the low threshold for expertise ensures no hard questions from the peanut gallery or questions about why in the heck this process is taking so long or why we are wasting hundreds of millions in taxpayer’s money.  

As an aside, all of the pre-2007 applications and more were being done with “hobby” grade parts and components. Lest we forget that around the same time Procerus had a hobby grade unicorn that could track and terminate not only moving ground targets but airborne targets as well.  “The hobby has changed and needs to be reeled in,” is a cover story for folks looking to mandate up some customers for more VC investment. Or, then again, it’s just a hapless and bamboozled stakeholder parroting semi-plausible bureaucratic talking points thinking they are helping out. The only thing they are helping out with is creating more restriction and buying more time for government dysfunction.

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