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Selective UAS Enforcement

By Patrick C. Miller | April 16, 2015

When someone’s caught violating a traffic law, the offender sometimes inquires about whether the cop has something more important to do.

“You’re enforcing the speed limit here? Really?”

“I’m getting a ticket for rolling through a stop sign? You’re kidding, right?”

On the other hand, I’ve had firsthand experience in which law enforcement believed that dealing with a minor crime wasn’t worth its time. When you’re the victim of the crime, there’s nothing more infuriating than an officer who just doesn’t care about what happened and lets you know it.

In my case, I didn’t have much hope that the perpetrator would be caught or brought to justice. In such cases, I suspect most people are realistic enough to understand this. But it would have given me more confidence in my local police department if they had at least made a minimal effort to solve the crime.

Because the police made it clear they had no intention of investigating in any meaningful manner, it made me wonder which laws they intended to enforce. It seemed to me that selective law enforcement served only to encourage more lawless behavior. Shouldn’t that be what law enforcement tries to discourage?

When I see some in the blogosphere suggest that the Federal Aviation Administration has more important things to do than enforce its ban on commercial UAS operations, I think they should be careful about what they wish for. 

It’s not as if FAA investigators are looking at random YouTube videos hoping to spot something against regulations. When they receive a complaint, they investigate it. If they find the complaint valid, they send the offending UAS operators letters to let them know. The goal is to achieve voluntary compliance through education.

I realize there have been a few cases in which the FAA somewhat overzealously exceeded its authority and veered into First Amendment territory. But they seem to be the exception rather than the rule. In addition, the agency’s recently issued policy on aviation-related videos on the Internet makes clear that the FAA doesn’t intend to engage in censorship.

So here’s a hypothetical situation: Let’s say someone sends the FAA a complaint about a UAS operator flying commercially without an exemption from the agency, but it adopts the “we have more important things to do” attitude and chooses to ignore the complaint.

Is that fair to a person who planned to open a UAS-related business, but delayed its start until the FAA provided an exemption or adopted regulations that allowed it? Why should someone who follows the rules be at a disadvantage?

Even worse, what if the offending UAS operator causes an accident that resulted in significant property damage, injuries or loss of life? Even if the original reason the operator was reported to the FAA had nothing to do with the accident, most people wouldn’t let the agency off the hook for failing to investigate the individual when it had a reason and the opportunity to do so.

The public would want to know why the agency looked the other way instead of doing its job. The media and politicians would demand immediate answers about why the FAA allowed the UAS operator to fly after being reported. And they’d be completely justified in asking the questions.

It’s easy to say that the FAA should simply ignore its own regulations against commercial use of UAS because it has bigger and better things to do. But if you ended up on the wrong end of the consequence, you’d be singing a different tune.