P-56 is the prohibited area around the White House and the Capitol. It long predates the Washington D.C. Special Flight Rules Area (SFRA) but it had to happen—a UAS/drone crashed onto the White House grounds this week. Fortunately it was a benign event. An insomniac (or perhaps a somewhat inebriated) government employee, who was up at 0300 EST, lost control of the machine and ‘fessed up about six hours later. Probably should’ve taken Ambien instead of alcohol.
Aside from the entertainment value for some and the great concern it caused for others, how does this impact our flying activity? Finally, it may just be the wake-up call needed to get the UAS industry and the FAA to move more realistically on the challenges that the devices pose. They have potential to do serious aeronautical harm as well as great things. Where is the balance?
The FAA and various partners have been discussing this since 2007 and the AOPA staff has been discussing this with FAA working groups since 1992. Let’s just say that the rule-making process has been “deliberate.” There have been a number of close calls reported by airliners (and a few anecdotally with GA) where only luck avoided a collision. Now is the time to address it.
The UAS is a force for good or evil perhaps rivaling the Biblical Apple or nuclear power. A drone can be a huge help after a natural disaster or it can cause a man-made one by mistake or on purpose. Deliver beer and pizza to the grandstand and packages to your front door, find missing persons, take pictures of real estate or your sunbathing neighbor versus delivering disaster from above—it’s all in how it’s being operated and by whom.
The technological rabbit has way outstripped the regulatory turtle and despite how the fable turned out, it’s time for the turtle to strap on a JATO bottle and get ahead of the problem.
Those of us who fly aircraft understand the need for balance between industry-choking regulations and complete chaos. So what’s reasonable? The work group certainly has ideas and those of us unencumbered by facts or political pressure will certainly have others. Having a proven talent for stating the obvious let me offer a few thoughts that will surely irritate both sides:
Manufacturers of such devices must take at least some responsibility on how they are to be used as they pursue phenomenal potential profits. Since technology got us into this perhaps it can get us out.
How about a robust command and control system that “helps” UAS pilots remain clear of prohibited airspace? Equip the devices with GPS databases that allow them to go no higher than 400 feet agl and not closer than five miles to designated airports. The District of Columbia is off limits to UAS and other restricted airspaces can be added. The codes for greater access may be unlocked with proper vetting and qualifications. Depending on operators “to behave” hasn’t worked with lasers and it’s not working here. Sadly, this will raise the cost of the hardware significantly but the first big accident or nefarious event will do likewise. Prevention is much cheaper than attorneys!!!!
FLASH — this just in — The drone manufacturers apparently DO have the technology as noted in the this release from DJI, the producer of the device in discussion.
All unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) operators should abide by all regulations from such organizations as the ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) and their own national airspace regulations. In order to increase flight safety and prevent accidental flights in restricted areas, the Phantom 2 series includes a No Fly Zones feature to help users use this product safely and legally.These zones include airports worldwide and have been divided into two types, A and B……
Sophisticated evil state players and our defensive team will fight this out indefinitely, but the development of the perfect system shouldn’t delay some progress to managing the majority of users. As for the terror aspect (seems like the world has come to this), depending on the nature of the hardware, there may need to be some security vetting of the operator. The upside is that if you’re a certificated UAS operator, you should automatically qualify for the TSA prescreening lanes when flying commercial. The same privilege should be extended to GA pilots. Believe it: The government already knows who we are.
I’m not convinced that one needs to hold full FAA pilot credentials to operate small UAS, but one needs to demonstrate solid control skills, understand airspace/good neighbor concerns, and carry some level of financial responsibility to protect against mishaps.
The White House incident is a much bigger deal than deflate-gate and it may be just the impetus the regulators and the industry need to prevent what is currently heading toward an inevitable aeronautical catastrophe.