According to a new Report from the National Academies of Sciences, the FAA’s commercial drone rules are too strict and the FAA’s zero tolerance policy towards commercial air accidents is stifling development of the industry. This report comes on the heels of recent 95-page report by the US Government Accountability Office criticizing UAS policy as being based largely on guesswork over the risks to the airspace, rather than hard facts.
The GAO’s Report noted that, while the FAA has collected over 6,000 reports of UAS sightings near manned aircraft or airports. These reports are almost entirely unverified, as the pilots can rarely make a positive identification of the make or model of aircraft, and, due to the small size of the vehicles, the sightings cannot be backed up by radar. As a result, the GAO argues that the FAA’s restrictions on commercial UAS flight cannot amount to more than an educated “best guess” as to the magnitude of the risk and the likely harm in the event of an accident.
The FAA, for the most part, agreed with the GAO’s conclusions and recommendations, and responded that it has several initiatives underway to obtain and verify more data. In addition, according to the GAO report, it appears that the FAA has been more aggressive in its UAS enforcement actions than most people assume. Over the past ten years, the FAA took 420 compliance actions, 49 administrative actions, and 49 enforcement actions against small UAS users.
While the remedial response to the GAO report is relatively straightforward, the “solution” for the complaints of the National Academy of Sciences is not. At its core, the Academy’s complaint is that a “near zero tolerance for risk” in aviation is unnecessary and counterproductive. According to the authors, the “dialogue now needs to shift toward balancing risks with potential advantages of drone operations, developing a holistic picture on overall risk and benefit. . . .” The Academy believes that the level of risk for UAS operations should be set at the same level as “traveling by car, swimming in the ocean, or walking across the street.”
As a matter of pure logic, there is merit to this idea. Currently, there are 100 fatalities per day in car accidents, and 900 deaths per year from bicycles. This happens day in and day out, without people giving it a second thought. No matter how absurd it may seem to an academician, however, it is undeniable that a single fatality on a commercial aircraft is national news for weeks, results in hundreds, or even thousands of hours of investigations, and often provokes immediate demands from members of Congress wanting to know why more was not done to prevent it from happening.
As a result, the Academy’s arguments should not really be directed at the FAA, but rather to the public. If the public believes that the value of commercial UAS services is worth the same risk of death or injury as getting into a car, then the public will clamor for the focus of the FAA to change. Until that day comes, it is unlikely that the FAA will stop giving the American people and the Congress what they say they want, risk free skies.