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 29, 2012 at 3:25pm

Hi all,

I'm the author of the LA Times op-ed, and and wanted to reach out 

the DIY Drones community to attempt to clear up what I respectfully

believe are a few apparent misconceptions.

First, I've never stated that RC rules should be "overturned". In 

fact, I don't think that the operational limits regarding where/how 

people fly RC planes need to be changed at all.

It's the oversight (or lack of it) for operation by people 

like the example I give in my sixth point below

that concerns me.

Second, in the LA Times piece I didn't advocate licensing for 

*all* model aircraft (which in the FAA bill is defined to include what 

many people call "drones"), just the small subset of "drones capable of 

carrying a significant payload". Depending on where that cutoff is, and 

whether "drone" is defined for licensing purposes as limited to FPV, that 

might make such a requirement irrelevant for many or even most hobbyists.

Third, in terms of what the licensing means, it could be as simple as 

a web-based registration done once very 3-5 years, that costs very little 

or even nothing, and simply gives the govt. some basic information 

(name/address/DOB) about who is flying drones capable of carrying a 

significant payload. If you aren't on some sort of terrorist

watch list, the govt. would approve the license.

Fourth: I'm well aware that a terrorist wouldn't apply for a license.

However, and see the sixth point below for an example, the *existence* 

of a licensing program - regardless of compliance - gives the govt. a 

legal tool to stop use by inappropriate people.

Fifth: Some people on this site have quite rightly pointed out 

that there's always a risk of attacks using cars, trucks, bicycles, 

people wearing vests, etc. And, of course, trucks are much larger than 

a small drone. Of course, I agree. But drones pose a very

different sort of threat because they fly. I think we can all agree 

that poses some new concerns.

Sixth: Consider the following example: Suppose that there is a person 

who is on a terrorist watch list. Suppose that he – and let’s assume for the 

purposes of this example that it’s a he – is known to have spent significant 

time in Al Qaeda training camps in northwest Pakistan. Suppose that this 

person comes back to the United States, and is known to frequent jihadist 

web sites where he posts extremist anti-American views. Now suppose

he buys (or builds) a 50-pound, FPV drone. I think it's clear that 

this is a person who should not be allowed to operate that drone. As things 

stand now, the recently passed FAA bill does not provide the govt with 

any regulatory framework to prevent that from occurring. We could of

course wait until he actually does something illegal, but by then it 

may be too late. A licensing requirement - whether or not he actually 

applies for a license - provides the govt with regulatory justification 

for stopping him from using the drone.

In closing, I have enormous respect for the modeling/hobbyist 

community. The people in the AMA, DIYDrones, FlyingGiants, etc. are not 

the concern. The concern is that the rules could be abused by people not 

from the traditional hobbyist community.

The concept that a drone could be used for a terrorist attack may 

seem farfetched to some people. But, in March 2001, the prospect that 

19 men armed with box cutters could bring down both World Trade Center 

towers would have seemed farfetched as well. It doesn't seem unreasonable 

to suggest providing the govt with some mechanism to prevent people as 

in my example above from operating drones.



Comment by John Church on March 29, 2012 at 3:37pm

Welcome John, and thanks for clarifying the article. I just wish that the distinction was made in the original piece.

Have fun here on DIYD!

Comment by Ellison Chan on March 29, 2012 at 3:54pm

Hey John, nice of you to join us at DiYDrone, and welcome.

Unfortunately, even after reading your response, I'm still not convinced there's any utility in licensing hobbyists, regardless of the size of the drone.  There are already rules relating to limits on sizes of hobby aircraft, before certification of the craft is needed.  

My assertion is still that regardless of what laws are passed, the terrorists will always find a way to do their nefarious deeds.  

The only thing that added licensing will do is stunt the progression of the technology advancement from hobbyists' innovations.  Prior to 9/11, there were existing laws outlawing weapons on airplanes, but the terrorists used box cutters, which weren't considered as weapons.

Licensing will just create a barrier to innovation for those of us which are not terrorists.  It will not improve the FBI's job any, since suspected terrorists should already be under surveilliance, and it would not take an application for a drone license to tip off the authorities. This brings up another wrinkle, is everyone who applies for a large drone license going to come under immediate FBI attention?!

You also realize that a large drone can be built easily with parts ordered from online hobby shops and a local hardware store.  Unless the terrorist in question is already being tracked by the FBI, it will be very difficult to track.    Is the government going to outlaw the purchase of aluminium tubes and screws?  How about requiring a license for Dremel tools and screw drivers?  That's what I used to build my home made drone.

Comment by John Villasenor on March 30, 2012 at 9:38am

Response from the AMA to the LA Times piece:

Comment by Art on March 30, 2012 at 12:45pm

"A licensing requirement - whether or not he actually applies for a license - provides the govt with regulatory justification for stopping him from using the drone."

How would licensing requirement help you to stop such an individual?  You can not arrest him based on the fact that he bought a model airplane as long as he doesn't fly it.  Once he flies it - it is too late.

"The concept that a drone could be used for a terrorist attack may seem farfetched "

Actually, it doesn't seem farfetched.  We all remember (well most of us) a recent case when a 26-year-old Massachusetts man  was arrested for planning an attack with a RC airplane on Pentagon and the Capitol.  They didn't seem to need any "regulatory justification" for stopping him.

BTW, so we are clear on terminology, FPV (First Person View) aircraft is not a drone it is still an RC aircraft equipped with a camera and a video transmitter.  You can call an aircraft a "drone" (although the use of words SUAS or UAV would probably more appropriate) when an aircraft is equipped with an autopilot.

Comment by Ellison Chan on March 30, 2012 at 1:33pm

I think that at this point, the logical validity of requiring licenses for private non-commercial operation of any drones has been disproved.  The president of the AMA in the above response echoes everyone's sentiments.  However, if enough  public fear can be induced against drones, the government will find the justification for regulations requiring licenses.   That would be quite sad.

Comment by Rob_Lefebvre on March 30, 2012 at 2:03pm

John, to your point 6:

All of this is already being prevented by the restrictions on the purchase of explosives.  Possession of explosives are the key to the whole thing.  Without them, a quad copter is just a toy.  A van is just truck.  And a vest is just a piece of clothing.  The explosives are already tightly controlled, and for good reason.  It also appears those controls are about as effective as they could be, judging by the lack of use of high powered explosives for terrorism in the US.

As we can see, commonly available diesel fuel, fertilizer, and a Uhaul van are far more effective weapons.  Easily attained, and virtually untraceable.  This MO is a far greater threat, yet it's use is still very rare.  What makes you think that flying drones are any more of a risk?

We do not need to regulate everything that COULD be used as a delivery device.  That's silly.

Comment by Hunter Parris on March 30, 2012 at 2:22pm

I completely agree with Ellison Chan in both of his responses.  If a licensing program is put in place so the gov't can perform background checks on individuals with a "drone", where does it go from there?  If the gov't deems that a person who has been flying RC planes for years "unfit" to fly (based on God-knows-what standards), will they come to his house and seize his property?  That just seems like a complete violation of a few Constitutional amendments (more notably the 4th and 14th Amendment-Section I).  And since a license is required to fly and not own, seems like this man would be damn furious for wasting all that money, time, and effort for the past several years into buying and building such a lovely aircraft just to be told by the gov't that he can't fly them now.  I can see many civil court cases arising from such a standard.

As for the terrorism.  I have a lot of experience with counter-terrorism, force protection, and counter-insurgency.  Let me just say this; if this gentleman is known to post things on websites, is on a watch list, and under heavy surveillance by the FBI, DHS, and/or NSA...hime buying a drone is only a piece of information.  Plus, he'll have a very hard time getting back in the U.S. via commercial transportation if he's on a terrorist watch list.  It just seems that you are going to a bit of an extreme saying that all recreational UAS aircraft should be monitored by the Government to prevent a member of Al Qaeda using one in an act of violence.  Like I said in my email, the money and time spent wit h these regulations and licenses could be put toward securing our border and preventing the illegal trafficking of explosives and HARMFUL devices.  small UAVs used by the hobbyist, enthusiast, photographer, and police/fire rescue are mere tools to a business and/or fulfillment in building an advanced machine with their own two hands.  Not lethal killing machines.  Don't take that away from us because some idiots would want to use it for violence, instead go after what is making this a weapon...the illegally-aquired explosives.

Comment by Hunter Parris on March 30, 2012 at 2:27pm

@ Robert:

My words exactly!

Comment by Gary Mortimer on March 30, 2012 at 2:35pm

@John if you come back, whats your take on this is it part of an organised FUD campaign against small stuff?


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