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How fear-based regulations hurt the drone industry: Brendan Schulman, DJI

Security concerns have always been a pain point for the drone industry, limiting its growth. On the final day of Airworks 2020 (August 27, 2020), Brendan Schulman, DJI Vice President of Policy & Legal Affairs provided excellent insight into what needs to be done to enable drones to fly freely and help the world resolve crucial issues; how fear-based regulations are hurting the drone industry.

Excerpts from the keynote.

Drones are entering new frontiers by enabling LiDAR applications and intelligent autonomous operations, and they’re also making a difference here and now by helping businesses and governments do their work safely during an unprecedented pandemic.

We’re all able to move forward with great drone ideas because the regulatory systems in the United States and in other leading countries allow it. They value potential and progress, and they address fears in a rational way.

Now that hasn’t always been the case. And I have to warn you … that may not always be the case. There are proposals in play right now that would restrict your ability to choose the drone you want to operate, and would restrict the range of drone products that you can choose from. Now that’s not an abstract threat – it’s very real.

The regulatory posture just a few years ago reflected the public sentiment about drones. Early adopters knew drones were fun and full of potential – but a lot of people thought drones would spy on them, or attack them, or crash into airplanes and maybe even kill them.

And that’s why it was such a big step when the FAA implemented Part 107 in 2016. It finally permitted routine commercial drone operation in the United States – and it did so by addressing this technology with a risk-based approach. The federal government found a way to address fears about safety in a rational, balanced and forward-thinking way. That is to say, a risk-based approach is how you go from a government that fears innovation, to one that embraces it.

But Part 107 was four years ago. Since then, progress on regulations has stagnated.

Fear still rules 

In 2020, the drone industry in America is at a crossroads. Fear, not reality, is still holding back Americans from being able to perform more safe, efficient and effective drone operations. Fear-based policies that would restrict or ban some drone operations are on the table.

Security agencies made clear in 2017 that before the FAA could move forward in expanding operations beyond Part 107, they wanted a Remote ID solution to help them identify and monitor airborne drones. Now that process of stopping advancement didn’t balance risk and reward, cost and benefit; it simply said innovation would have to wait – it was prohibited – once again, until they were satisfied.

And so we waited, and waited. And the FAA did not propose a Remote ID regulation for years until the day after Christmas last year. That’s at least two years later than expected, and that was even after the industry urgently developed and handed to the FAA its own set of recommendations. The FAA proposal that came out late last year requires almost every drone to transmit its information in real time to a giant government database, via remote ID service providers who are expected to charge monthly fees, no matter how remote, routine or low-risk your drone operation. Now that’s complicated, it’s costly, and it ignores the easier and simpler alternatives that exist and that should be an option.

DJI hired economists to study the FAA proposal, and they estimate that Remote ID as proposed by the FAA will cost over $5.5 billion to implement if the FAA does not change its proposal to more closely reflect the recommendations offered by its own Aviation Rulemaking Committee in 2017.

Now the Department of Interior prohibits drones – or even components – that are made in China. This is where fear-based policy takes us. The Department of the Interior through its Secretarial Order 3379 has grounded all of its drones, even though the majority of its fleet were made by an American company that used a factory in China. And it did so even though it undertook a thorough evaluation of the security of its DJI drones.

This isn’t the only example of how a fear-based ban puts lives and property at risk. The Department of the Interior used to deploy drones to monitor wildfires, to ignite controlled burns which combat and prevent those fires, and to measure fish in streams and to undertake other conservation projects … and now they can’t. Now some of that work must now be done with low-flying planes and helicopters, which carry their own safety risks. In fact, aviation accidents are actually the leading cause of death for wildlife biologists. But setting that aside, some of the work just isn’t being done at all.

Also Read: Federal agencies issue joint advisory for legal use of drones

Place of manufacturing also a roadblock

And that’s just the start. There are proposals in Congress and in the White House, namely the American Security Drone Act and a draft Executive Order, that would ground drones across the whole federal government based on where they are made, or even just where their components are made. And they wouldn’t just apply to the federal government itself – they would apply to any organization that works for a federal agency, or one that accepts federal grant assistance. That means state and local fire departments, police departments that want to use drones to save lives. And it means high schools and universities that want to use drones to teach students. And it also means nonprofits that want to use drones to improve their communities. And that also means you, if you ever need to or want to fly over federally managed lands, or work for a client or partner who does government work. You’re included too in the scope of these kinds of bans.

Now that isn’t a fair or rational policy outcome. These restrictions are purported to be about cybersecurity – the fear that data from those drones could be sent to who knows where, against the wishes of the user. And you know, that’s a reasonable thing to worry about. But the government is not dealing with that risk or that concern in a reasonable way.

So let’s be clear – drone pilots who fly sensitive missions, whether that’s for government agencies or critical infrastructure operators or private companies – they deserve to have technology products that meet their security needs. But there are no standards or specific national requirements for drone technology cybersecurity, and the proposals that are based on where a drone is made are a very poor substitute. They would block a drone with rock-solid security just because it’s assembled in China – but they would give a free pass to a drone built in America even if it had security flaws. Now that’s a problem, and it’s not how we treat any other technology when it comes to cybersecurity assurance.

So we’re at a crossroads. Will myths and fears about drone data security – pushed not only by politicians with an agenda but companies that hope to capitalize on fear – will they drive extreme and irrational policy outcomes that stop you from doing good things with drones? Or will government and industry play a helpful role, to treat drone technology like any other and develop standards so you can be assured that your equipment protects your data?

Will the drone industry turn on itself by throwing fuel on a fire that can burn all of us, ultimately leaving you with fewer and more expensive options? Or will the industry recognize that different organizations need different drones for different needs, and that drone users deserve fair competition on price and performance, rather than a distorted market warped by political objectives?

The risk is real, but the path to a solution is real too. A risk-based approach is how you go from having a government that fears innovation, to one that embraces it. 

Also Read: Manage UAV operations anywhere with a moment’s notice

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