- Education and Science
Amazon Delivery Drones: Presenting UAVs To FAA
Every year there are thousands of near-miss lacerations from plastic knives. Due to the close resemblance of a butcher's knife or machete, plastic knives and sporks require recall and regulation… Clearly, this is a fictitious statement.
Imagine if someone had to defend these claims. How daunting would it be to prove a plastic knife is less harmful than a conventional knife or that a water balloon is less lethal than a grenade? The audience presents the difficulty, that is, if they don't immediately acknowledge the obvious revelation, then a long, circular discussion is pending.
In similar disparity, small Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (sUAV) have been compared to conventional prop, turbo-prop, and jet aircraft. The popular exaggeration includes: a hypothetical sUAV falling from the sky and injuring a pedestrian; or that they present themselves as constant obstacles towards passenger planes (the "near-miss" hype). In all actuality, there is an elephant in the room, something more dangerous that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and popular opinion have failed to exemplify.
I will better explain the microscope and double standard that has been placed upon commercial sUAV development. Furthermore, I will address the deadly instruments of our airways that make the sUAV look like a harmless plastic utensil. The following includes simple deductive reasoning, National Transportation Security Board (NTSB) data, FAA legal documents and federal case law/history.
Dangers of General Aviation
In 2012, the data collected by NTSB showed that travel by our national highways was the most dangerous mode of travel. It caused over seventy-five times (75x) more fatalities than travel by aircraft. Still, we maintain a unique fear and nostalgia for aircraft accidents. While the airways are the safest, they do have catastrophic consequences due to: 1) large volume of combustibles (Jet A and Avgas); and 2) large passenger occupancy, e.g., Boeing 777-200ER.
The fear and nostalgia would have us believe that fatalities are lead by large air carriers such as Malaysia Airlines. On March 8, 2014 Malaysia Airlines MH370 lost 227 souls on board, the aircraft simply vanished. Then on July 17, 2014 Malaysia Airlines MH17 flew over a war zone in East Ukraine where it was shot down. The full occupancy of 298 souls lost their lives. However, in the United States the major class of aviation accidents and fatalities is the General Aviation population.
The small prop planes flown in General Aviation can consist of old, out of production makes and models. It is not the same class championed by Boeing, Airbus, Bombardier, etc. For example, the popular Cessna has many variations dating back to production of 1955. Many no longer in production, but readily available and flying above us. The popularly flown Piper PA-18 Super Cub was introduced in 1949 and last produced in 1994. According to 2012 FAA data, the most active aircraft were the single engine fixed wing piston. The most active by age group were built between 1978-1982.
These small aircraft have proliferated the skies. By comprising data from FAA.gov and Census.gov, the following plane per capita statistics were derived: Alaska 7.8 per capita; Delaware 2.05 per capita; Montana 1.75 per capita (active general aviation, capita per 1,000 people).
Due to the lack of resources, enforcement of the safety regulations and equipment is a less involved practice than highway safety enforcement. There are no cops in the skies, and few cop-equivalents inspecting on the ground. A pilot is more likely to have their smuggled snack inspected by a movie theater usher than to have a random enforcement of their medical card, pilot license or the airworthiness of aircraft.
Current Events: General Aviation
When it comes to the accusation of a sUAV or drone causing near-misses, one should first observe what is not missing, but making full contact. This past year has shown many small plane crashes, some into occupied homes.
- December 8, 2014 small plane crashes into Maryland home.
- November 18, 2014 small plane crashes into Illinois home.
- May 5, 2014 small plane crashes into Colorado home.
Birds have been sucked up into the engine or struck aircraft more often than any sUAV near miss:
- January 15, 2009 “Miracle on the Hudson,” pilot crash-lands after bird strike.
- “Nearly 500 planes have been damaged by collisions with birds since 2000, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Some 166 of those planes had to make emergency landings.” – Pete Donohue & Dave Goldiner, How Often Do Birds Cause Plane Crashes?, NY Daily News (Jan. 16 2009).
FAA Section 333 Waiver: Legal Correspondence
Amazon Prime Air filed their first Section 333 Waiver in July 2014. The application asked to test the Prime Air sUAV solely on their own land. Since then there has been a mass of applications from other companies. The largest groups in opposition are the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) and the National Agricultural Aviation Association (NAAA). I previously wrote about those in an article titled, “Preparing For The Defense: Mind Reading Skills and Surveying.” Below is a new graphic summarizing ALPA’s general sUAV concerns and Prime Air’s responding features:
On October 22, 2014 ALPA submitted a new argument that had not been raised before, "[A]n outdoor private test range…proximate to densely populated areas...” may cause other aircraft to fail normal operation. This was an odd and late argument. Amazon Prime Air had already proven to meet earlier concerns. The new concern was trying to claim that they could not properly monitor a private location. Are we to believe Amazon could be so daft? I don’t think this is a realistic problem. Amazon had already outlaid the countless crew and professionals that would oversee operations.
FAA reiterated concerns in its reply on October 30, 2014. Due to the nature of this letter, a circular discussion and polemic objections, Amazon Prime Air responded with a scolding tone. Amazon's response filed December 8, 2014 gave warning that it was about to fully launch the sUAV delivery business in other countries.
"Although Amazon's proposed small UAV operations may pose no greater risk than small UAVs that are used by hobbyists and modelers (because of weight, altitude, etc.), Amazon has proposed to abide by much stronger safety measures than are required for these groups."— Michael Drobac, Small UAV Coalition, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP
Federal Case Law / History
There is no accusation of conspiracy or targeting of Amazon. On the contrary, the federal government has sided with them too. A recent US Supreme Court ruling favored Amazon.com and its subcontractor, Integrity Staffing Solutions. In summary, the security screening of employees was likened unto a work commute, rather than a work related task as defined by the Portal-to-Portal Act. (Integrity Staffing Solutions, Inc v. Busk, et al). Amazon.com or their security subcontractor will not have to compensate employees for time spent in the security screenings. Employees are checked to make sure they don't bring contraband into the fulfillment centers and don't leave with stolen merchandise. Other companies perform similar screenings.
On or around 1946, the U.S. government made a seizure of all airspace in an eminent domain type style. Contrary to popular belief, we only own the reach and throw above our residences; the airspace belongs to the people collectively. (United States v. Causby).
The ruling assisted air travel, but in a free market, many cities were too small to attract and fill the demand of a large passenger air carrier. From 1978 to 1985, The Airline Deregulation Act unintentionally exacerbated the problem. Airlines were without incentive to fly to many small town airports and simply didn't. In response to this stifling of cargo, postal service and passenger transportation, the federal government enacted the Essential Air Service (EAS) program. Millions of dollars are subsidized to airlines for airline service into small cities and villages. In addition to the lessor known subsidy of the EAS, there is the Air Transportation Safety and Stabilization Act of 2001. This act granted over $15 billion to the airline industry.
The federal government has a responsibility to maintain a safe, vibrant and sustainable public air transit. This is done with departments such as the FAA and NTSB. Throughout history, our country has a culture and policy that is highly supportive of the airlines.
3 Reasons for FAA Stalling Commercial sUAV Delivery
There are more dangerous modes of travel on the ground and in the air, thus we know that the objection to the sUAV as a hazard is not based on logic or proof. As circular arguments have increased, and special groups have objected with morphing statements, there must be something more personal to the objection. Here are three possible reasons:
- Two Wrongs Don't Make A Right. Although I have pointed out that general aviation is safer than ground movement, it is still the most dangerous category of air transportation. I think FAA would like to increase safety and equipment compliance and improve upon this statistic. Simply saying something is not as bad as the other doesn't always make it attractive. It may be bad timing. FAA may want to prepare the general aviation and consumer population a little longer before introducing a new category of aircraft.
- New Tech A Threat To Conventional Jobs. The traditional pilot community has been close knit and active in our commerce for a long time. They have federal subsidies and multiple agencies with a diverse workforce from retired-veterans to senator's sons. Proposing to introduce a new industry that may displace some air transport jobs, change systems, etc. is a change many may not be willing to accommodate.
- Policy & Privacy. One of the biggest voiced concerns from the public has been regarding privacy. Will a delivery sUAV have a camera on it? Will their fenced yard be viewed from the air while they are sunbathing? Will someone steal the signal of an sUAV and use it to spy or maybe an sUAV company will lend its service to government surveillance? In a time where the NSA has received a lot of public and international criticism; allowing commercial drones to fly might fuel additional protests and concern over privacy. The FAA would be right to concern itself with protecting privacy, but also taking a political stand to distance itself from something people associate with spy games.
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I think Amazon Prime Air and the coalition had created technology and mitigated all of the tangible concerns and objections. All that is left is public acceptance that further drives its governing bodies. I originally thought this would follow the technicals, but unfortunately it is catering to some negative public opinion. For Amazon, I think Vice President of Global Public Policy, Paul Misener, is correct in his prophetic tone; the first country to champion drone delivery will not be the United States. There is a foreign nation about to be the famous first, the showcase to the nations.
© 2014 t aaron brown