Drones, the FAA, and the end of US Air Supremacy

Update June 4, 2017: A Federal court ruling has overturned the FCC’s drone registration requirement, on the grounds that the FCC violated the explicit statutory law forbidding them from regulating “model aircraft.”

The situation is still a mess for both drone and model airplane fans in the Washington DC area. The registration requirement is now gone, but the DC area “no-fly” zone remains in effect.

The US uses armed drones to kill people all over the world, yet is throwing a tantrum about anyone else flying peaceful unarmed drones. This might be because the availability to the general public of inexpensive drones has effectively taken away the control of the air the US government and military have posesssed since the end of WWII. The fact that a tiny, harmless pink toy drone was able to fly to the White House, and that a manned gyrocopter was able to fly to the US Capitol through some of the world’s most heavily monitored airspace is proof of this.

The FAA acted with an exceptionally clumsy hand on this, reminescent of the failed attempts by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the 1970’s to enforce licensing of Citizen’s Band (CB) radios in a era when millions of motorists used them to locate and neutralize police speed traps on 55 mph highways. So many people simply ignored CB licensing that the entire scheme collapsed, much like the 55 mph speed limit did a few years later. To this day CB radios require no license. Now, the FCC finds that licensing of the better walkie-talkies, those on the General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) band has also become unenforceable. Thus, wideaspread low-threshold civilian defiance of radio licensing has defeated the FCC on two different bands. In addition the FCC has never been able to shut down anarchist and other pirate radio stations broadcasting on the treasured broadcast bands and keep them shut down, nor have they been able to collect on those $10,000 fines they attempt to impose. There is no plausable risk to refusing to pay-except for holders of FCC licenses.

The FAA made similar mistakes on a more dangerous scale, only to be slapped down by a Federal court. Pirate radio stations rarely interfere with airport communications and CB and GMRS radios never do so. On the other hand, poorly engineered store-bought drones have escaped their owners and in one case one was spotted from a commercial airliner at 10,000 feet, well out of range of its frustrated owner’s tiny control transmitter. Fortunately it was not sucked into an engine. Birds sucked into engines are a known cause of plane crashes, thus the propane powered “bird cannon” noisemakers used at airports to drive them away. The FAA still fears that drones are about to add to this hazard, but acted stupidly instead of sensibly and as a result has actually achieved nothing against that threat.

Instead of doing things like requiring that that ready to fly drones land if the control channel is lost, the FCC tried to imposed registration at a threshold only slightly heavier than the rubber-band powered model aircraft many people flew as children. In the process, the FAA has defied legislation passed by Congress explicitly forbidding regulation of “model aircraft” instead declaring model aircraft to require registration. The Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) advised model aircraft fliers not to register their models, expecting the programs to be modifed or tossed out as a result of court challenges, and now that has come to pass. As of June 2017 the FCC drone registration program is no longer in effect due to the court ruling.

If the FCC regulations had been upheld, the AMA would have been shown that their generations-long ability to keep flying model aircraft safe had become useless is protecting the rights of these hobbyists to fly at all. With no-fly zones expanding and the FAA writing tickets that can only be collected against those with registered aircraft or a pilot’s license, both model aircraft fliers and drone hobbyists would have been driven underground. It is possible to fly either one from places like rooftops where the transmitter operator has line of sight to the aircraft but nobody on the ground can see the operator. Drones with computers onboard can be flown by video link from miles away, as more powerful, extra-legal transmitters on both ends can establish two-way commmunications with just a few watts of power thanks to the line-of-sight, in the air signal path During WWII it was possible to maintain navigation links between British aircraft and French Resistance fighters on the ground with a transmitter that output only 2/10 of a watt to prevent detection by the German radiolocation authorities.

During the time registration was in effect, drones of course were still sold to the public under the fiction that they would be registered, just like CB radios in 1977 or GMRS walkie-talkies today. Operators of the walkie-talkies are sometimes referred to in the radio world as “bubble pack pirates.” The skies up to 100 feet or so could have been filled with bubble pack pirates of another sort if the FAA program had been upheld. If engaged by law enforcement, these drones could have simply been abandoned as indeed many already are. After all, drones are cheap and lawyers are expensive. All an operator has to do is buy the drone with cash and ensure that it is wiped free of fingerprints.

OK, now let’s talk about how the general public can use drones to stop governmental agencies from harassing them from the air, thus literally taking back air superiority. I will use the uprising in Baltimore after Freddie Gray was murdered by police for an example. During the entire week plus of protests and uprisings, police helicopters prowled the skies and the FBI flew at least two light aircraft carrying cell phone tracking equipment and other surveillance hardware to spy on the people. A swarm of drones could have closed the skies to these attackers, with presence pre-announced for air safety reasons. Essentially protesters would have issued their own “notice to airmen” that intensive drone operations would take place over the city, thus forcing the police helicopters and the FBI planes to stay away. Mostly likely they would simply have never taken off given safe and sufficient notice. As far back as 2011 the NYPD threw a fit when Occupy Wall Street proposed to fly a camera drone over that city, wanting a monopoly of the sky (control of the high ground) for themselves. Now the tools to take that monopoly away are in the hands of the people, with hundreds of thousands of drones already in use.

Now for my own “notice to airmen:” If you fly, whether manned or not, never allow your flight operations to put the general public at risk! Stay away from airports(unless flying a manned aircraft), stay all the way away from peaceful civilian aircraft, stay under the 400 foot limit when flying for practice or recreation, still stay under that 55 pound limit unless over water, and do not fly drones or model aircraft over populated areas for entertainment. Don’t fly over crowds at all, even at airshows the area directly under the planes is always kept free of spectators as even licensed pilots in certified aircraft can and do crash. If you fly a drone or model aircraft, expect some crashes (in the old days it was a LOT of crashes) and make sure those crashes cannot bring harm to people. If you fly stupid and someone gets hurt, you (and the FAA, and the newpapers and TV press) will have only yourself to blame. Don’t fly big “flying lawnmowers” as some call large unmanned multirotor drones at all unless you are an expert, are well away from any populated area, and have mutiple redundant computers onboard that will land the drone safely if the control link is lost or hacked. Never fly such a large drone with an unencrypted control link, as you do not control the radio spectrum.

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