Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) announced today that she plans to introduce legislation to codify and expand the moratorium on civilian drones. Feinstein, who is well known for her opposition to drones, is premising her legislation on alleged safety concerns — she previously used alleged privacy concerns to justify her policy positions.
In a letter to the FAA Feinstein wrote:
I recognize that the proliferation of highly-capable, inexpensive drones operated by untrained individuals is a new challenge. But the FAA is responsible for the safety of the airspace, and it must aggressively confront this challenge now, before an airliner is brought down. I urge you to pursue vigorous enforcement and strong safety regulations, and to warn operators about the consequences of their behavior.
It is my intent to introduce legislation to codify and expand the moratorium on private drone use without specific authority from the FAA that is already in place. This expanded moratorium would cover any such use that could threaten the airspace, it would require a safety certification for expansions of private drone use, and it would be backed up by substantial criminal penalties if manned aircraft or people are put at risk. I would very much appreciate your comments and technical assistance on such legislation.
Feinstein cited a recent release of FAA data regarding alleged “near-collisions” however, much of that data was debunked by Forbes contributor and former NTSB investigator John Goglia. In an article last week, Goglia wrote:
In my opinion the problem with this list is that the FAA has used it to claim a growing problem with small drones, especially those used by hobby and commercial aerial photographers. But the list is just a compilation of unsubstantiated reports. I would expect the agency responsible for the safety of the aviation system would know better than to use unvetted data to support safety conclusions. It is particularly disturbing if this type of data informs the agency’s decision on future rulemaking for small UAVs.
If Goglia’s analysis is correct, it suggests we shouldn’t be so quick to make policy based on problematic data.
Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) announced today that she plans to introduce legislation to codify and expand the moratorium on civilian drones. Feinstein, who is well known for her opposition to drones, is premising her legislation on safety concerns.
Interestingly, the FAA was quick to turn over their “near miss” data to the media, but when journalists used FOIA to request the enforcement letters the FAA was sending to small unmanned aircraft operators like realtors and photographers, the agency took more than a year to respond. That smacks of a PR campaign, not a true data collection effort. The reason for the data dump is simple, the FAA needs to justify their safety regulations. Senator Feinstein is merely the most recent opponent to throw her hat in the ring in support of the FAA. By pushing for something more strict than what the FAA proposes, her proposal will make the FAA’s position look like a happy medium.
Earlier this year I wrote about how alleged safety concerns were going to become the new rallying cry of drone opponents, and the FAA was going to use an “increase” in reports to justify their new regulations. That prediction seems to be coming true. At the time I wrote:
Regulators like the FAA want a simple solution, and reports of “near-misses” by irresponsible users will allow them to cite safety as their reason for grounding most users. But all users are not the same, a realtor’s drone or an agricultural drone or a journalist’s drone (or Amazon’s drone for that matter) all have incentives to behave responsibly. When journalists chase the click-worthy “near-collision” stories we run the risk of prompting laws and regulations that respond to the sensational stories without giving due regard to responsible and beneficial uses of this new technology.
It is highly likely that these types of reports are only going to increase in the next few months. That’s because the FAA recently directed Air Traffic Controllers to report any situation including “any reported or observed unauthorized unmanned aircraft activity or reported or observed unauthorized unmanned aircraft activity or remote controlled model aircraft that deviate from normal practice areas…” A directive like that essentialy asks Air Traffic Controllers to report nearly all reported and observed drone activity.
What that means is that this Miami report (along with others like this NYPD story from last week) will likely be the first of many reports that variously describe “near-collision” and “reported near collisions.”
With a media biting on “near-collision” stories and the FAA clamoring for anti-innovation regulations that sadly fail to balance the costs and benefits of regulation, we shouldn’t be surprised to see this type of publicity seeking legislation from Senator Feinstein. Of course, Senator Feinstein is well known for using exaggerated reports to justify her policy preferences. Earlier this year she claimed that a “drone” landed outside her home and violated her privacy. However, a report by Abby Haglage of the Daily Beast revealed that the alleged drone was actually a tiny pink remote controlled helicopter (see also the embedded tweet below).
There are legitimate safety (and privacy) concerns associated with the use of any new technology, but legislation and policy should be driven by real facts, not anecdotes and inflated stories. Hopefully the FAA and the Congress will figure out how to balance safety, privacy and innovation.