LA Times op-ed: Overturn RC rules and make UAV hobbyists get licenses!

Get ready for a lot of these sort of op-eds. Here's one in the LA Times from John Villasenor, a Brookings Institute fellow, who thinks the current FAA rules on RC have got to go. Extra points for anyone who can explain the logic of the bolded sentence below:

Although reasonable people can disagree on how long it would take terrorists to build or acquire weaponized drones that can be guided by video into a target, there's really no dispute that it is a question of when and not if. The day will come when such drones are available to almost anyone who wants them badly enough.

In fact, there is ample evidence that terrorist groups have already experimented with drones. As far back as the mid-1990s — practically ancient history in drone terms — the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo sect that carried out the sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway reportedly considered drones. So too have Al Qaeda and the Colombian insurgent group FARC.

Nations with a record of close ties to terrorists are another concern. Iran unveiled a drone in August 2010 that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad managed to describe as an "ambassador of death" and a "message of peace and friendship" in the same sentence.

So what can we do to reduce the risk? One good place to start is the "model aircraft" provision in the new aviation law, which allows hobbyists to operate drones weighing up to 55 pounds with essentially no governmental oversight. The law allows recreational drones to be operated in accordance with "community-based" safety guidelines established by a "nationwide community-based organization." The inclusion of this language was a lobbying victory for model airplane enthusiasts. But is it really in the broader national interest?

It is not. One of the hallmarks of an effective national antiterrorism policy is consistency. The hobbyist exception is glaringly inconsistent with our overall approach to antiterrorism. By what logic, for example, do we prevent airline passengers from taking 8-ounce plastic water bottles through security checkpoints, while permitting anyone who so desires to operate a 50-pound, video-guided drone, no questions asked?

The overwhelming majority of the people in the model airplane and drone hobbyist community would never consider carrying out a terrorist attack. Yet the same could be said for the overwhelming majority of airline passengers, all of whom are subject to the same rules about what can be taken through airport security checkpoints.

Given the realities of the world we live in, it doesn't seem unreasonable to require all civilian U.S. operators of drones capable of carrying a significant payload to obtain a license. A useful model can be found in fishing licenses, which provide an inexpensive, non-burdensome way for government agencies to know who is fishing.

A licensing program obviously wouldn't eliminate the threat of drone terrorism. After all, terrorists won't necessarily feel compelled to get a license. But the federal government has a legitimate national security interest in monitoring domestic drone use. Today, its ability to do so is inadequate. A licensing program would help plug a critical gap in the government's knowledge regarding who should — and shouldn't — be operating drones.

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Comment by John Villasenor on March 30, 2012 at 2:38pm

Robert,

  You are correct that controls on explosives are critically important. And, as you point out, those controls appear to have been effective to date.

   To carry out an attack, the person in my point 6 needs the drone, and explosives. If the explosives controls work and he is stopped and arrested when trying to acquire them, problem solved and the system worked. But why create a single point of failure? If he somehow *is* able to get explosives, then the problem clearly isn't solved. With the person in that example, the logical solution isn't to let him play around with the drone for months on end and hope we catch him when he tries to acquire explosives. It's to not even let him play around with the drone.

   The term "regulation" can be used to describe a wide spectrum of things, which on one end of the spectrum can turn into mind-numbing, innovation-stifling, costly and ineffective bureaucracy. The "regulation" I am proposing is on the opposite end of that spectrum. For the very small percentage of hobbyists it would apply to - and, incidentally, from looking at the photos at diydrones, I doubt whether it would even apply to any of the platforms I've seen here -  complying with it could take not much more time than it takes to read this message, once every half decade. And it could be extremely low cost (e.g. a few dollars) or even free. It would simply provide one more tool to law enforcement, at very little cost in terms of time, burden, etc., to stop a person like the one in my example.

   

Comment by Ellison Chan on March 30, 2012 at 2:56pm

John, I think you're missing the point we're trying to make.

Owning and operating any drone is not an act of terrorism nor is it a pre-cursor to terrorism. It's what you carry on it that makes it a potential for terrorism.  However by the same token, a large kite can carry enough explosives to cause terror.  Will you propose to license the purchase of large amounts of nylon material and carbon fibre rods?  Also will you limit the length of nylon string or fishing line that people can buy?

Comment by John Villasenor on March 30, 2012 at 4:20pm

@Gary

>@John if you come back, whats your take on this http://www.suasnews.com/2011/09/8525/cnn-reporting->pentagon-att... is it part of an organised FUD campaign against small stuff?

I personally would be very surprised if this arose out of any kind of organized FUD campaign against small stuff.


Developer
Comment by Andreas M. Antonopoulos on March 30, 2012 at 5:11pm

Sorry to interject with a change of topic.

I am new to the amateur UAV space. So here's my first impression: I am completely amazed at the pace, variety and intensity of innovation going on here. For context, I live and work in the Silicon Valley bay area. This community is a global hotbed of innovation that is quite incredible. 

Instead of responding to the fears, I think it is much more important to focus (at least in the US) on the jobs, innovation, opportunity etc. The birth of aviation is not the story of giant defense contractors, they came much later. It is a story of tinkerers and enthusiasts, working out of back yards and empty lots across the country (and the world), building airplanes from fabric, wood and wire. That spirit of innovation and wonder is still alive and bright, right here in the UAV and RC communities. This is not the time to be killing new industries and jobs.

Comment by R. D. Starwalt on March 31, 2012 at 7:44am

My tongue-in-cheek comments aside, it is clear that the previously reported (and well monitored by law enforcement agencies BTW) event should indicate that measures are already in place to deal with this type of risk/threat.

If such a propsed license had been in place, Comrade Ferdaus would still have pursued his plans to 'stick it to the man'. He could then also be charged with intent to operate without a license. (Cue the laugh track)

The weight limit in the current legislation was mainly set in place for giant scale model aircraft.

Size = weight.

I have been a member of the Academy of Model Aeronautics (member #79169) (www.modelaircraft.org) since a teen and have seen the size and power of the RC hobby increase as technology has increased.

AMA membership, though not a license, provides liability insurance (when the rules are shown to be used), safety rules, education, and competition events for all aspects of the aeromodelling hobby.

The only analog to Mr. Villasenor's idea is my Amateur Radio license (KB4FEM Advanced Class). The FCC provides the license but the American Radio Relay League (www.arrl.org) administers the testing process (and other groups also administer the tests). The license is good for 10 years. It shows others that I understand the theory, rules, and technology used in that hobby/public service.

I think Mr. Villasenor would have had a more receptive audience if he had taken the approach of a ham license analog rather than using the word 'terror*" in 6 of 8 of his paragraphs

Better yet, why not approach the problem from the perspective of professional drone drivers such as the news gathering and law enforcement uses. They would be operating in places that could have an impact on the general public should their craft suffer a failure. THAT type of operation should have a license and certification process (IMHO) to ensure the hardware and meatware (the pilot) are qualified and show sufficient liability protection in the event of a tragic accident (which will occur).

It is pretty day outside, time to go flying.

Comment by ikrase on April 5, 2012 at 11:00pm

I actually think that licensing for very large aeromodles might be a good idea. 


Admin
Comment by Gary Mortimer on April 5, 2012 at 11:22pm

In the UK large models have had to have an airworthy inspection for years. I think the CAA trusts the BMFA more than the FAA trusts the AMA because of it.

http://www.largemodelassociation.com/

@John its a jet and that was one of the things that the FAA wanted grounding, the FBI chaps paid for the jet for him, was that not organised enough? I think a UK court would have thrown that out.

@Andreas don't worry the innovation is just as rapid, in fact many people would say its actually faster outside of the USA. So you can always find a job overseas if you really want to get where its at.

Comment by Gianni Dalerta on April 14, 2012 at 7:57am

Eventually we will probably have to have our own association (does one already exist?) and the dues for that would have to go towards protecting our rights. The gavel will come down at some point.


Moderator
Comment by Hai Tran on May 3, 2012 at 8:04am

Yes how about our own association?  The modal aircraft associations seem to frown upon FPV and UAVs etc, and that's because the guys making the rules have little experience in that field.

Remote Piloted Aircraft Association International? Maybe could get a better deal for insurance for members and lobby for better rules regarding RPAs?

I paid $4,500 for just $5M public liability insurance without airframe insurance for my UAV worth $13,000.  It costs less to insure a real Cessna 172S worth $200,000 inclusive of airframe insurance.

Comment by Harry Lister on May 10, 2012 at 12:34am

It's obvious the OP ed tool is exactly that.  No amount of logic or explanation can excuse or hide the pathological desire to control free people, no matter how small the infringement.  They continually want surrender from innocents because of fear and ignorance. 

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