from the given-its-past-rulings,-perhaps-this-isn't-a-bad-thing... dept
Jason Koebel of Vice reports the FAA has missed its deadline to deliver a coherent policy on drone usage.
When Congress passed the FAA Modernization Act in 2012, it gave the agency until September 30, 2015 to fully regulate commercial drones for use in the United States. Well, it's October 1, and we're left with a patchwork of regulatory band-aids, quasi-legal "guidelines," and a small drone rule that still hasn't gone into effect yet.This should come as no surprise. The FAA seems to be operating from the brainstem when it comes to regulating private drone use. Its previous rulings have been all over the place. On one hand, it recognizes the problems leaving this completely unregulated would pose. On the other, it seems unable to prevent itself from handing down horribly inconsistent rules.
Even Congress has recognized the FAA is unlikely to come up with a final set of drone rules any time soon.
As early as May 2014, Congress acknowledged that the agency would probably miss this deadline.The FAA honestly doesn't seem to know what it wants, at least not in terms of long-term guidance. Its stabs at rulemaking have been mostly on-the-spot determinations, each one more contradictory than the last. In 2014, it said delivering the game ball for kickoff at a college football game was not permitted, supposedly because it was "commercial use." Then it turned around and approved drone-mounted cameras for use by movie studios, something entirely commercial.
In a report published then, lawmakers noted that they were "concerned that the FAA may not be well positioned to manage effectively the introduction of [drones] in the United States" and specifically noted that a missed deadline was likely.
Here's a quick visual representation of how screwed up the drone rulemaking process is.
As of 2012, the FAA still forbade "commerical use" of drones. Almost two years later, another regulatory agency (the National Transportation Safety Board) pointed out that the FAA had -- nearly three decades earlier -- exempted model planes from its regulatory control. Seeing model planes as analagous to private (i.e., non-government) drones, the NTSB's administrative judge basically said the FAA can't claim control over any and all flying objects. Tacocopters were back in business. At the center of its decision was the fact that the FAA had no active policy on drone use. Its assertions that it should be able to regulate these flights was based on nothing more than the feeling it should be able to do this and an internal memo that had never made its way into the FAA's official policies.
Considering the ubiquity of the technology, it's hugely irresponsible for the FAA to handle this on a case-by-case basis, especially when this process results so often in contradictory rulings. The FAA is correct to err on the side of caution, but it seems unable to see past the dangers drones might pose to other air traffic. In doing so, it has turned its rulemaking process into the worst combination of immobilization and overreactions -- less of a regulatory agency than a catatonic being that responds quickly and violently to certain stimuli. There appears to be little rational thought guiding the process.
While its recent efforts have clarified at least some of the parameters governing private drone use, the rules are still severely limiting. That's its overabundance of caution at work. The FAA certainly doesn't want to be seen as somehow allowing the sort of actions that have given private drone use a public image problem -- like interfering with airborne firefighting operations… or being used as high-flying tools for vandalism.
What is clear is that Congress won't be pushing the FAA towards better rulemaking or holding anyone accountable for its lack of timely rulings. By the time the FAA ever gets around to issuing comprehensive guidelines, they'll already be out of date.