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Is The FAA Moving Too Far Too Fast?

Many observers of the UAS industry have seen the FAA's willingness to approve Section 333 exemptions for the commercial operation of drones as step in the right direction. But is the FAA jeopardizing safety by moving ahead too quickly?
By Patrick C. Miller | October 08, 2015

Many observers of the UAS industry have seen the FAA’s willingness to approve Section 333 exemptions for the commercial operation of drones as step in the right direction. But is the FAA jeopardizing safety by moving ahead too quickly to satisfy commercial interests?

Christina Engh thinks so. She’s the chief operating officer for the UASolutions Group, a consulting firm based in Florida. She also spent roughly three years in the FAA’s UAS Integration Office, was involved with UAS military operations in Afghanistan while serving in the U.S. Army and is a former Blackhawk helicopter pilot.

After reading my article on the FAA’s approval of an exemption for Measure, a Washington, D.C., company, that enabled it to fly more than 300 different drones, Engh sent me an email calling my attention to a blog she wrote for the DronesX website titled “Measure Twice, Cut Once.” In it, she pointed out serious problems with Measure’s petition for exemption, as well as two others the FAA approved in spite of significant shortcomings.

With Measure’s petition, Engh found that a quarter of the UAVs the company proposes to fly for commercial purposes are “duplicates, typos, or non-motorized items such as flight controllers.” For example, the company received the FAA’s permission to fly the Pixhawk, which is not a UAV, but a 3D Robotics autopilot system.

She found another company that had received permission from the FAA to fly a UAV that wasn’t even on its application and another that asked to fly what she termed “objects which escape the definition of aircraft.”

Engh concluded that it’s now probably easier to receive a Section 333 exemption from the FAA than it is to adopt a dog. “It is as if the drones are flying the FAA instead of the other way around,” she wrote.

Engh asks and answers the question: So how did this happen? She attributes it to two factors. One is that the FAA is simply overwhelmed and the other is that the UAS industry has become too preoccupied with undermining competitors. If Congress really wants UAS integrated into the national airspace quickly and safely, Engh believes it needs to provide the FAA with the resources to do it.

Even less helpful to moving the industry forward are businesses that submit haphazard or poorly researched applications for Section 333 exemptions to the FAA.

“Come on, industry,” Engh implored. “We know the FAA is overwhelmed. So why are you giving them something that makes its job even more difficult?”

Clearly frustrated with Measure’s approach, she exclaimed, “This isn’t about having the most or breaking some world record. It should be about being the safest, not PR.”

If the UAS industry is going to be successful in the U.S. and reach its potential, then the nation needs to reconsider the current path we’re on. Now is not the time for cutthroat competition, and we can’t afford to have the federal agency responsible for air safety cutting corners to appease political and business interests. Too much is at stake.