Drones

By Brent Skorup and Melody Calkins

Tech-optimists predict that drones and small aircraft may soon crowd US skies. An FAA administrator predicted that by 2020 tens of thousands of drones would be in US airspace at any one time. Further, over a dozen companies, including Uber, are building vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft that could one day shuttle people point-to-point in urban areas. Today, low-altitude airspace use is episodic (helicopters, ultralights, drones) and with such light use, the low-altitude airspace is shared on an ad hoc basis with little air traffic management. Coordinating thousands of aircraft in low-altitude flight, however, demands a new regulatory framework.

Why not auction off low-altitude airspace for exclusive use?

There are two basic paradigms for resource use: open access and exclusive ownership. Most high-altitude airspace is lightly used and the open access regime works tolerably well because there are a small number of players (airline operators and the government) and fixed routes. Similarly, Class G airspace—which varies by geography but is generally the airspace from the surface to 700 feet above ground—is uncontrolled and virtually open access.

Valuable resources vary immensely in their character–taxi medallions, real estate, radio spectrum, intellectual property, water–and a resource use paradigm, once selected requires iteration and modification to ensure productive use. “The trick,” Prof. Richard Epstein notes, “is to pick the right initial point to reduce the stress on making these further adjustments.” If indeed dozens of operators will be vying for variable drone and VTOL routes in hundreds of local markets, exclusive use models could create more social benefits and output than open access and regulatory management. NASA is exploring complex coordination systems in this airspace but, rather than agency permissions, lawmakers should consider using property rights and the price mechanism.

The initial allocation of airspace could be determined by auction. An agency, probably the FAA, would:

  1. Identify and define geographic parcels of Class G airspace;
  2. Auction off the parcels to any party (private corporations, local governments, non-commercial stakeholders, or individual users) for a term of years with an expectation of renewal; and
  3. Permit the sale, combination, and subleasing of those parcels

The likely alternative scenario—regulatory allocation and management of airspace–derives from historical precedent in aviation and spectrum policy:

  1. First movers and the politically powerful acquire de facto control of low-altitude airspace,
  2. Incumbents and regulators exclude and inhibit newcomers and innovators,
  3. The rent-seeking and resource waste becomes unendurable for lawmakers, and
  4. Market-based reforms are slowly and haphazardly introduced.

For instance, after demand for commercial flights took off in the 1960s, a command-and-control quota system was created for crowded Northeast airports. Takeoff and landing rights, called “slots,” were assigned to early airlines but regulators did not allow airlines to sell those rights. The anticompetitive concentration and hoarding of airport slots at terminals is still being slowly unraveled by Congress and the FAA to this day. There’s a similar story for government assignment of spectrum over decades, as explained in Thomas Hazlett’s excellent new book, The Political Spectrum.

The benefit of an auction, plus secondary markets, is that the resource is generally put to its highest-valued use. Secondary markets and subleasing also permit latecomers and innovators to gain resource access despite lacking an initial assignment and political power. Further, exclusive use rights would also provide VTOL operators (and passengers) the added assurance that routes would be “clear” of potential collisions. (A more regulatory regime might provide that assurance but likely via complex restrictions on airspace use.) Airspace rights would be a new cost for operators but exclusive use means operators can economize on complex sensors, other safety devices, and lobbying costs. Operators would also possess an asset to sublease and monetize.

Another bonus (from the government’s point of view) is that the sale of Class G airspace can provide government revenue. Revenue would be slight at first but could prove lucrative once there’s substantial commercial interest. The Federal government, for instance, auctions off its usage rights for grazing, oil and gas retrieval, radio spectrum, mineral extraction, and timber harvesting. Spectrum auctions alone have raised over $100 billion for the Treasury since they began in 1994.

Dominos pizza droneJust three days ago I penned another installment in my ongoing series about the growing phenomenon of “global innovation arbitrage” — or the idea that “innovators can, and increasingly will, move to those countries and continents that provide a legal and regulatory environment more hospitable to entrepreneurial activity.” And now it’s already time for another entry in the series!

My previous column focused on driverless car innovation moving overseas, and earlier installments discussed genetic testingdrones, and the sharing economy. Now another drone-related example has come to my attention, this time from New Zealand. According to the New Zealand Herald:

Aerial pizza delivery may sound futuristic but Domino’s has been given the green light to test New Zealand pizza delivery via drones. The fast food chain has partnered with drone business Flirtey to launch the first commercial drone delivery service in the world, starting later this year.

Importantly, according to the story, “If it is successful the company plans to extend the delivery method to six other markets – Australia, Belgium, France, The Netherlands, Japan and Germany.” That’s right, America is not on the list. In other words, a popular American pizza delivery chain is looking overseas to find the freedom to experiment with new delivery methods. And the reason they are doing so is because of the seemingly endless bureaucratic foot-dragging by federal regulators at the FAA. Continue reading →

This article originally appeared at techfreedom.org.

TechFreedom has sued the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) to overturn the agency’s recently adopted “interim” drone regulations, which require that drones that weigh over 250 grams be registered for a $5 fee.

Whether or or not requiring drone registration is a wise policy, the rules the FAA rushed out before Christmas are unlawful,” said Berin Szoka, President of TechFreedom. “They exceed the authority Congress has given the FAA. Moreover, the agency illegally bypassed the most basic transparency requirement in administrative law: that it provide an opportunity for the affected public to comment on its regulations. That means the FAA could not fully consider the real-world complexities of regulating drones. Thus, the FAA’s rules could lead to a host of unintended consequences.”

The notice-and-comment rulemaking process serves an important role in ensuring that regulation doesn’t do more harm than good,” said Tom Struble, Policy Counsel at TechFreedom. “It ensures that the agency is exposed to viewpoints from all the relevant stakeholders, and it forces the agency to weigh competing considerations before issuing a rule. The holiday rush did not justify the FAA bypassing standard notice-and-comment rulemaking, and the paltry cost-benefit analysis contained in the IFR does not pass muster. The D.C. Circuit should set aside these interim rules and force the FAA to go back to the drawing board.”

See TechFreedom’s petition for review here.

DroneToday, the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced that it will soon require Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) or private drones, used for both personal and commercial purposes, to be registered in a national database. To facilitate this process, the agencies announced the creation of a new federal task force that will develop recommendations for a UAS registration process. Rules are to be published by November 20th (presumably to cover new devices sold before Christmas).

Here are some quick initial reactions on the proposed registration rules: Continue reading →

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.

Continue reading →

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 →