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.

Views: 3762

Comment by Anish on March 27, 2012 at 6:03am

i guess its the question of "vested interests" where some groups would like to retain there expertise, similiar to case of crypto 15+ years ago. Once flattening of information potential happens hopefully folks in high places would notice, that the competitive advantage has disappeared and other folks have come to dominence

Comment by fix8oscill8 on March 27, 2012 at 6:38am

The saddest part is that the dude is an EE professor at UCLA, you would think that there would have been some understanding of basic logic there

Comment by Rob_Lefebvre on March 27, 2012 at 6:49am

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?

Chris, I think the logic here is that if we have this rediculous water bottle rule, we need an equally rediculous anti-UAV law.  Fair is fair, right?

By the same token, all vans and enclosed transport trucks should be banned.  Afterall, weren't they used in the two largest ever explosive terrorist attacks in the US?  WTC1 and Oklahoma City. Clearly we need a law that states that all cargo transport should be on flatbed trucks so that the cargo is exposed for observation.

Comment by Hunter Parris on March 27, 2012 at 7:14am

So I wrote Mr. Villasenor an email in reposne to this article since the LA Times website wouldn't let me post my comment.  I will post any response I get.  Here is the email:

Mr. Villasenor,

SInce the LA Times website is not allowing me to post my comment, I thought I would write the author directly. Here is the response:

Terrorism, terrorism, terrorism!  Why does the fear factor still control everyone?  9/11 was definitely a tragedy, however, if we respond drastically like this to every single incident, we are doing exactly what shouldn't be done to prevent things like this from happening.  More of the taxpayers' money wasted on creating a licensing program that will HAVE ABSOLUTELY NO EFFECT on terrorist attacks!  You even said so yourself in this article.  Why should the government want to monitor the model aircraft in the sky if the ones who are committing the attacks do not even have a license?  There is absolutely no logic behind your idea.

Have there been any recorded attacks with RC model airplanes?  I know the military has small cruise missiles... So?  Because the military has access to this type of technology, we should make every hobbyist suffer?  

If your logic is put into effect, then we must, as you say, be consistent.  So, let's see, no more cars, vans, or trucks because of VBIED attacks.  No more jackets or large shirts because of suicide vests.  Everyone is required to consent to an anal cavity search because of reports of terrorists using their rectum to transport explosives. No more shoes because of shoe bombs. The list goes on and on of clever ways these people have managed to carry out terrorism.

My point is, if someone wants to carry out an attack...they will find a way. No matter what is regulated. Yourself being an EE I thought you would actually have some logic behind this, but I was wrong. Spending ridiculous amounts of money on useless policies and agencies is exactly one of the reasons why we are in the financial crisis to begin with. Why impose a licensing program if it will not help? Why have more "big government" involvement with petty things such as model aircraft? Why strip the liberties of law-biding citizens to prevent a fictitious future attack that would inevitably happen regardless of regulation? These are the questions I challenge you to answer.

The answer should be to put the money that would be spent on your "licensing program" to regulate RC models in the sky, towards regulating the main ingredient in all attacks. Explosives. A cruise missile without the explosives is an FPV RC airplane. A VBIED without the explosives is a car. A suicide vest without the explosives is a disgruntled person with a clock on his/her chest. You get my point? The RC models isn't what is the problem, its the payload that all of these "vehicles of death" have in common. National Security, not Oppressive Government.

I will gladly accept any and all rebuttals you have regarding this matter. Thank you for your time in reading this response.


James Parris
former SSG/U.S. Army
Millbrook, AL

Comment by Adam Rivera on March 27, 2012 at 7:23am

@Chris, Can we get a "Dislike" button for this article? :-D

Comment by Marc on March 27, 2012 at 8:03am

Normal rubbish from a journalist that does'nt know what they are talking about (maybe he works for the government  trying to get more money in the coffers for licences)

Comment by Dustin on March 27, 2012 at 8:21am

Dear Licensing Bureau,


  I am writing to request my application of a UAV license be expidited.  We've only recently learned that the 'insert key person's title here' will be arriving to our city early.  We've worked hard to ensure our terrorist activity will be successful and don't want to fail due to lack of licensing.


Thank you.

Comment by james sowell on March 27, 2012 at 9:27am

P.S please do not send via us mail

Comment by Paul Marsh on March 27, 2012 at 9:34am

Call me cynical, but do they really care who is flying model airplanes (that they would know about), or have they discovered another possible source of revenue and are building the rationale to jutify?  Just say'n.

Comment by John Church on March 27, 2012 at 10:10am
A licensing program would help plug a critical gap in the government's knowledge regarding who should — and shouldn't — be operating drones.

Yep, 'cause that works. It's been said before; look at gun regulations. Criminals don't apply for a license. Nanny state paranoia will only lead to a population of dummies who will easily be overcome by the next bad guy.


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