3D Robotics


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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  • Moderator

    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!

  • 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.



  • There are no provisions for flying autonomous aircraft, or any RPA beyond VLOS. They only way this deal is going to work for the FAA is to really clamp down on RC flying. The scenarios you guys lay out are going to be beyond what is legal. The hobby is in danger of being outside of Federal regulations.   

  • He makes a good point though - it is just too easy to turn a drone into a weapon.

    While I think of it we best get rid of cars too..history tells us they are easily weaponised!

    Hmmm, all kinds of bags as well come to think of it - they too can carry a concealed bomb. Hell even clothes can mask a concealed weapon.

    Probably best if as Greg says...we all just shun our clothes and retreat back into our caves. That'll teach the terrorists!

  • Here an idea, make people get a license in order to board a 747.

    That way by Johns logic the sky's will be safe, because only people with a license can ever get on a large jet and therefore the problem with hijacking is solved


    Can I get a fellowship now ???

  • Mr. Villasenor is out of touch with the demand for tacos...

    More seriously, perhaps the best counter to this fear-mongering is to promote the image of cute harmless drones doing neat stuff. It is better for the collective croc-brain of the public to associate "drones" with cute quads playing musical instruments than a crazed "terrist" flying a drone into a building. Now, how to get through the message that a 55lb drone weighs about 1/20000 as much as a fully loaded 747...

  • Wow @JD - somebody who actually makes good sense in this discussion!

    To be honest, I'm much more nervous about my equipment getting out of control and falling from 200 feet into a busy street maybe crashing through the window of a car killing the driver and creating a disaster.  Sign me up for sensible, livable, low-overhead, no-beaucracy, clearly articulated laws.  

  • I agree that there needs to be different degrees and levels of licensing or UAVs.  Here's how I see it.  If you are operating very large UAV over urban areas above 400ft agl.  Sure that makes sense.  If you are planning or want operate UAV in and around airport space yea a license make sense.   But for the 99% of us who have very small aircraft... requiring us to get a license is like requiring a bicyclist to have a drivers license.

    Bicyclist know its not safe and against the law to ride your bike on the interstate... So 99% of bicyclist don't ride on the interstate.  If you want to ride on the interstate you need a motorcycle and need a special license.

    The same should hold true for UAV operators...  Its just that simple.   If you have the bicycle equivalent of a drone, no special license should be required... If you want to play with big stuff in and over heavily populated areas in and around other maned aircraft then sure its the right thing to do.   A blanket licensing approach would be way overkill.

  • T3

    The problem is that it is people like John Villasenor that help form public opinion and policy. He has found a drum to beat and will probably continue to do so as long as it serves his career goals.

  • "A licensing program obviously wouldn't eliminate the threat of drone terrorism."

    Ok then, why would we need licensing at all?

    "But the federal government has a legitimate national security interest in monitoring domestic drone use."

    For what purpose, since we already established that it doesn't eliminate (or even reduce) the threat of terrorism?  Fishing license analogy doesn't really stand either.  A state charges you to fish or hunt so they can pay for "managing" the wildlife. They don't keep tabs on who exactly is fishing or hunting, checking their backgrounds and determining if this person is really safe to trust him/her with a fishing rod An equal comparison would be a proposal to license people who ride bicycles.  After all, they can strap explosives to their bikes and drive it into a Walmart.

    It is really sad to see the left worshiping the almighty government which can save us from any and all calamities if we only surrender our lives to it.

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