Drones

Today, Eli Dourado, Ryan Hagemann and I filed comments with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in its proceeding on the “Operation and Certification of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems” (i.e. small private drones). In this filing, we begin by arguing that just as “permissionless innovation” has been the primary driver of entrepreneurialism and economic growth in many sectors of the economy over the past decade, that same model can and should guide policy decisions in other sectors, including the nation’s airspace. “While safety-related considerations can merit some precautionary policies,” we argue, “it is important that those regulations leave ample space for unpredictable innovation opportunities.”

We continue on in our filing to note that  “while the FAA’s NPRM is accompanied by a regulatory evaluation that includes benefit-cost analysis, the analysis does not meet the standard required by Executive Order 12866. In particular, it fails to consider all costs and benefits of available regulatory alternatives.” After that, we itemize the good and the bad of the FAA propose with an eye toward how the agency can maximize innovation opportunities. We conclude by noting:

 The FAA must carefully consider the potential effect of UASs on the US economy. If it does not, innovation and technological advancement in the commercial UAS space will find a home elsewhere in the world. Many of the most innovative UAS advances are already happening abroad, not in the United States. If the United States is to be a leader in the development of UAS technologies, the FAA must open the American skies to innovation.

You can read our entire 9-page filing here. Continue reading →

Yesterday afternoon, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) finally released its much-delayed rules for private drone operations. As The Wall Street Journal points out, the rules “are about four years behind schedule,” but now the agency is asking for expedited public comments over the next 60 days on the whopping 200-page order. (You have to love the irony in that!) I’m still going through all the details in the FAA’s new order — and here’s a summary of what the major provisions — but here are some high-level thoughts about what the agency has proposed.

Opening the Skies…

  • The good news is that, after a long delay, the FAA is finally taking some baby steps toward freeing up the market for private drone operations.
  • Innovators will no longer have to operate entirely outside the law in a sort of drone black market. There’s now a path to legal operation. Specifically, small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) operators (for drones under 55 lbs.) will be able to go through a formal certification process and, after passing a test, get to operate their systems.

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Farhad Manjoo’s latest New York Times column, “Giving the Drone Industry the Leeway to Innovate,” discusses how the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) current regulatory morass continues to thwart many potentially beneficial drone innovations. I particularly appreciated this point:

But perhaps the most interesting applications for drones are the ones we can’t predict. Imposing broad limitations on drone use now would be squashing a promising new area of innovation just as it’s getting started, and before we’ve seen many of the potential uses. “In the 1980s, the Internet was good for some specific military applications, but some of the most important things haven’t really come about until the last decade,” said Michael Perry, a spokesman for DJI [maker of Phantom drones]. . . . He added, “Opening the technology to more people allows for the kind of innovation that nobody can predict.”

That is exactly right and it reflects the general notion of “permissionless innovation” that I have written about extensively here in recent years. As I summarized in a recent essay: “Permissionless innovation refers to the notion that experimentation with new technologies and business models should generally be permitted by default. Unless a compelling case can be made that a new invention or business model will bring serious harm to individuals, innovation should be allowed to continue unabated and problems, if they develop at all, can be addressed later.” Continue reading →

I suppose it was inevitable that the DRM wars would come to the world of drones. Reporting for the Wall Street Journal today, Jack Nicas notes that:

In response to the drone crash at the White House this week, the Chinese maker of the device that crashed said it is updating its drones to disable them from flying over much of Washington, D.C.SZ DJI Technology Co. of Shenzhen, China, plans to send a firmware update in the next week that, if downloaded, would prevent DJI drones from taking off within the restricted flight zone that covers much of the U.S. capital, company spokesman Michael Perry said.

Washington Post reporter Brian Fung explains what this means technologically:

The [DJI firmware] update will add a list of GPS coordinates to the drone’s computer telling it where it can and can’t go. Here’s how that system works generally: When a drone comes within five miles of an airport, Perry explained, an altitude restriction gets applied to the drone so that it doesn’t interfere with manned aircraft. Within 1.5 miles, the drone will be automatically grounded and won’t be able to fly at all, requiring the user to either pull away from the no-fly zone or personally retrieve the device from where it landed. The concept of triggering certain actions when reaching a specific geographic area is called “geofencing,” and it’s a common technology in smartphones. Since 2011, iPhone owners have been able to create reminders that alert them when they arrive at specific locations, such as the office.

This is complete overkill and it almost certainly will not work in practice. First, this is just DRM for drones, and just as DRM has failed in most other cases, it will fail here as well. If you sell somebody a drone that doesn’t work within a 15-mile radius of a major metropolitan area, they’ll be online minutes later looking for a hack to get it working properly. And you better believe they will find one. Continue reading →

FAA sealRegular readers know that I can get a little feisty when it comes to the topic of “regulatory capture,” which occurs when special interests co-opt policymakers or political bodies (regulatory agencies, in particular) to further their own ends. As I noted in my big compendium, “Regulatory Capture: What the Experts Have Found“:

While capture theory cannot explain all regulatory policies or developments, it does provide an explanation for the actions of political actors with dismaying regularity.  Because regulatory capture theory conflicts mightily with romanticized notions of “independent” regulatory agencies or “scientific” bureaucracy, it often evokes a visceral reaction and a fair bit of denialism.

Indeed, the more I highlight the problem of regulatory capture and offer concrete examples of it in practice, the more push-back I get from true believers in the idea of “independent” agencies. Even if I can get them to admit that history offers countless examples of capture in action, and that a huge number of scholars of all persuasions have documented this problem, they will continue to persist that, WE CAN DO BETTER! and that it is just a matter of having THE RIGHT PEOPLE! who will TRY HARDER!

Well, maybe. But I am a realist and a believer in historical evidence. And the evidence shows, again and again, that when Congress (a) delegates broad, ambiguous authority to regulatory agencies, (b) exercises very limited oversight over that agency, and then, worse yet, (c) allows that agency’s budget to grow without any meaningful constraint, then the situation is ripe for abuse. Specifically, where unchecked power exists, interests will look to exploit it for their own ends.

In any event, all I can do is to continue to document the problem of regulatory capture in action and try to bring it to the attention of pundits and policymakers in the hope that we can start the push for real agency oversight and reform. Today’s case in point comes from a field I have been covering here a lot over the past year: commercial drone innovation. Continue reading →

Capital moves like quicksilver around the globe today as investors and entrepreneurs look for more hospitable tax and regulatory environments. The same is increasingly true for innovation. Innovators can, and increasingly will, move to those countries and continents that provide a legal and regulatory environment more hospitable to entrepreneurial activity. I was reminded of that fact today while reading two different reports about commercial drones and the sharing economy and the global competition to attract investment on both fronts. First, on commercial drone policy, a new Wall Street Journal article notes that:

Amazon.com Inc., which recently began testing delivery drones in the U.K., is warning American officials it plans to move even more of its drone research abroad if it doesn’t get permission to test-fly in the U.S. soon. The statement is the latest sign that the burgeoning drone industry is shifting overseas in response to the Federal Aviation Administration’s cautious approach to regulating unmanned aircraft.

According to the Journal reporters, Amazon has sent a letter to the FAA warning that, “Without the ability to test outdoors in the United States soon, we will have no choice but to divert even more of our [drone] research and development resources abroad.” And another report in the U.K. Telegraph notes that other countries are ready and willing to open their skies to the same innovation that the FAA is thwarting in America. Both the UK and Australia have been more welcoming to drone innovators recently. Here’s a report from an Australian newspaper about Google drone services testing there. (For more details, see this excellent piece by Alan McQuinn, a research assistant with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation: “Commercial Drone Companies Fly Away from FAA Regulations, Go Abroad.”) None of this should be a surprise, as I’ve noted in recent essays and filings. With the FAA adopting such a highly precautionary regulatory approach, innovation has been actively disincentivized. America runs the risk of driving still more private drone innovation offshore in coming months since all signs are that the FAA intends to drag its feet on this front as long as it can, even though Congress has told to agency to take steps to integrate these technologies into national airspace.  Continue reading →

DroneIf you want a devastating portrait of how well-intentioned regulation sometimes has profoundly deleterious unintended consequences, look no further than the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) current ban on commercial drones in domestic airspace. As Jack Nicas reports in a story in today’s Wall Street Journal (“Regulation Clips Wings of U.S. Drone Makers“), the FAA’s heavy-handed regulatory regime is stifling America’s ability to innovate in this space and remain competitive internationally. As Nicas notes:

as unmanned aircraft enter private industry—for purposes as varied as filming movies, inspecting wind farms and herding cattle—many U.S. drone entrepreneurs are finding it hard to get off the ground, even as rivals in Europe, Canada, Australia and China are taking off.

The reason, according to interviews with two-dozen drone makers, sellers and users across the world: regulation. The FAA has banned all but a handful of private-sector drones in the U.S. while it completes rules for them, expected in the next several years. That policy has stifled the U.S. drone market and driven operators underground, where it is difficult to find funding, insurance and customers.

Outside the U.S., relatively accommodating policies have fueled a commercial-drone boom. Foreign drone makers have fed those markets, while U.S. export rules have generally kept many American manufacturers from serving them.

Of course, the FAA simply responds that they are looking out for the safety of the skies and that we shouldn’t blame them. Continue reading →

drone picToday, Ryan Hagemann and I filed comments with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in its proceeding on the “Interpretation of the Special Rule for Model Aircraft.” This may sound like a somewhat arcane topic but it is related to the ongoing policy debate over the integration of unmanned aircraft systems (UASs)—more commonly referred to as drones—into the National Airspace System. As part of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, Congress required the FAA to come up with a plan by September 2015 to accomplish that goal. As part of that effort, the FAA is currently accepting comments on its enforcement authority over model aircraft. Because the distinction between “drones” and “model aircraft” is blurring rapidly, the outcome of this proceeding could influence the outcome of the broader debate about drone policy in the United States.

In our comment to the agency, Hagemann and I discuss the need for the agency to conduct a thorough review of the benefits and costs associated with this rule. We argue this is essential because airspace is poised to become a major platform for innovation if the agency strikes the right balance between safety and innovation. To achieve that goal, we stress the need for flexibility and humility in interpreting older standards, such as “line of sight” restrictions, as well as increasingly archaic “noncommercial” vs. “commercial” distinctions or “hobbyists” vs. “professional” designations.

We also highlight the growing tension between the agency’s current regulatory approach and the First Amendment rights of the public to engage in peaceful, information-gathering activities using these technologies. (Importantly, on that point, we attached to our comments a new Mercatus Center working paper by Cynthia Love, Sean T. Lawson, and Avery Holton entitled, “News from Above: First Amendment Implications of the Federal Aviation Administration Ban on Commercial Drones.” See my coverage of the paper here.)

Finally, Hagemann and I close by noting the important role that voluntary self-regulation and codes of conduct already play in governing proper use of these technologies. We also argue that other “bottom-up” remedies are available and should be used before the agency imposes additional restrictions on this dynamic, rapidly evolving space.

You can download the complete comment on the Mercatus Center website here. (Note: The Mercatus Center filed comments with the FAA earlier about the prompt integration of drones into the nation’s airspace. You can read those comments here.)

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DroneThe use of unmanned aircraft systems, or “drones,” for private and commercial uses remains the subject of much debate. The issue has been heating up lately after Congress ordered the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to integrate UASs into the nation’s airspace system by 2015 as part of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012.

The debate has thus far centered mostly around the safety and privacy-related concerns associated with private use of drones. The FAA continues to move slowly on this front based on a fear that private drones could jeopardize air safety or the safety of others on the ground. Meanwhile, some privacy advocates are worried that private drones might be used in ways that invade private spaces or even public areas where citizens have a reasonable expectation of privacy. For these and other reasons, the FAA’s current ban on private operation of drones in the nation’s airspace remains in place.

But what about the speech-related implications of this debate? After all, private and commercial UASs can have many peaceful, speech-related uses. Indeed, to borrow Ithiel de Sola Pool’s term, private drones can be thought of as “technologies or freedom” that expand and enhance the ability of humans to gather and share information, thus in turn expanding the range of human knowledge and freedom.

A new Mercatus Center at George Mason University working paper, “News from Above: First Amendment Implications of the Federal Aviation Administration Ban on Commercial Drones,” deals with these questions.  This 59-page working paper was authored by Cynthia Love, Sean T. Lawson, and Avery Holton. (Love is currently a Law Clerk for Judge Carolyn B. McHugh in 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. Lawson and Holton are affliated with the Department of Communication at the University of Utah.)

“To date, little attention has been paid to the First Amendment implications of the [FAA] ban,” note Love, Lawson, and Holton. Their article argues that “aerial photography with UASs, whether commercial or not, is protected First Amendment activity, particularly for news-gathering purposes. The FAA must take First Amendment-protected uses of this technology into account as it proceeds with meeting its congressional mandate to promulgate rules for domestic UASs.” They conclude by noting that “The dangers of [the FAA’s] regulatory approach are no mere matter of esoteric administrative law. Rather, as we have demonstrated, use of threats to enforce illegally promulgated rules, in particular a ban on journalistic use of UASs, infringes upon perhaps our most cherished constitutional right, that of free speech and a free press.” Continue reading →

Give us our drone-delivered beer!

That’s how the conversation got started between John Stossel and me on his show this week. I appeared on Stossel’s Fox Business TV show to discuss the many beneficial uses of private drones. The problem is that drones — which are more appropriately called unmanned aircraft systems — have an image problem. When we think about drones today, they often conjure up images of nefarious military machines dealing death and destruction from above in a far-off land. And certainly plenty of that happens today (far, far too much in my personal opinion, but that’s a rant best left for another day!).

But any technology can be put to both good and bad uses, and drones are merely the latest in a long list of “dual-use technologies,” which have both military uses and peaceful private uses. Other examples of dual-use technologies include: automobiles, airplanes, ships, rockets and propulsion systems, chemicals, computers and electronic systems, lasers, sensors, and so on. Put simply, almost any technology that can be used to wage war can also be used to wage peace and commerce. And that’s equally true for drones, which come in many sizes and have many peaceful, non-military uses. Thus, it would be wrong to judge them based upon their early military history or how they are currently perceived. (After all, let’s not forget that the Internet’s early origins were militaristic in character, too!)

Some of the other beneficial uses and applications of unmanned aircraft systems include: agricultural (crop inspection & management, surveying); environmental (geological, forest management, tornado & hurricane research); industrial (site & service inspection, surveying); infrastructure management (traffic and accident monitoring); public safety (search & rescue, post-natural disaster services, other law enforcement); and delivery services (goods & parcels, food & beverages, flowers, medicines, etc.), just to name a few.

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