News Roundup – 05/22/2017

Today we have news on the US drone regulation front, Chinese plans for a one-ton delivery drone, and business and fun with drones as personal transport.

Drone Registration was Illegal After All – I fondly remember registering my drones last year at the FAA’s website. You know, like all children’s toys, you inform a federal agency of your name, address, telephone number, e-mail, reasons for use, and agree that unauthorized or improper use of a government information system may result in civil and criminal penalties. Starting in January of last year, failure to register would result in up to 3 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. If caught. Caught doing what one might ask? Well that’s undefined and may or may not differ from township to township, county to county, city to city, state to state or even be defined at the Federal level.

Wow. It’s this draconian punishment and legal uncertainty about when and where a toy drone could actually be used that lead to disappointing Christmas 2015 and 2016 drone sales (which lead to the near-bankruptcy of 3D Robotics, the only serious US drone manufacturer). Many parents just skipped potential legal disaster and bought their kids indoor, obesity-inducing Playstations instead of outdoor, activity-inducing drones.

The best part of registration was that law-abiding citizens would do it, while all the assorted bogey-men of individual drones would not. So, in addition to being draconian, it was completely ineffectual.

At least it was obviously illegal. By actually congressionally passed 2012 legislation (Section 336 of the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act) hobbyist aircraft do not fall under the FAA’s jurisdiction. But if federal agencies get to make rules and have someone else show they are illegal (instead of a saner onus on the agency to show the rule IS legal) who has the time and money to fight the federal bureaucracy?

Finally, someone did. The result last Friday (May 19th, 2017) gives the FAA one week to figure out it’s legal options.

The real question is what the FAA is legally allowed to do with the personally identifying information of owners of the 550,000 drones that have been registered so far. Probably nothing illegal, at least until someone spends the time and money to get a ruling that it was illegal…

Shipping Containers of The Sky – As Orwellian as US drone regulation is, the liberty afforded in Communist China for capitalist use of drones has seen a thousand flowers bloom. The only serious drone hardware company is Chinese DJI, and now Amazon-like consumer goods distributed JD.com is planning a one-ton delivery drone to transport goods to rural sites and farm produce to cities. This is after JD.com’s successful delivery experiments using smaller drones last November (6 months ago)!

Amazon’s drone delivery plans are effectively on hold, as they have been since 2013.

In a nutshell, the US has almost totally Zheng-He‘ed itself out of the next great industry: commercial network-controlled aerial devices. Despite a commanding lead in aeronautics that has lasted almost a century, the US has succumbed to unfounded fears about little flying things and is purposefully trying its best to lose out on the hardware, software, algorithm, data, and commercial technologies that will define the 21st century.

Maybe Drones Need to Be More Dangerous – How many people have been killed or maimed by drones versus by ATVs and jet-skis? In the US, for ATV’s it’s about 1000 deaths per year, and for jet-skis it’s 200 per year. For drones it’s zero (0) ever. What about on a per-machine basis? There are an estimated 5 million ATVs, 1.3 million jet-skis, and 2 million drones in the US. This means that ATV’s and jet-skis are about equally dangerous, while drones are absolutely safe. Interestingly, one of these killer machines has a federal agency seemingly dedicated to preventing their use, the other two are left up to reasonable state departments of motor vehicles who really just want the licensing revenue. It’s the absolutely safe drones that are getting the rough treatment.

Maybe drones just need to be more dangerous, and then they could be reasonably regulated? A team in Latvia wants to help, and they have built a drone for base-jumping. No need to trespass on the roofs of skyscrapers, or run afoul of law enforcement after jumping off bridges and dams. Just grab hold of a powerful drone as it hoists you into the sky and let go at an altitude of 1000 feet.

Many companies are touting the safety improvements offered by drones. For example, in the inspection of cell towers, why mess with ladders, ropes, carabiners, and the inevitable accidental death? Why not just fly a kid’s Christmas present up and inspect the tower using it’s on-board video, leaving the inspector safely on the ground? A patent filed back in August 2016 aims to bring inevitable accidental death back into the picture by using drones to lift inspection personnel up to inspect the tower.

Why, why, why? My guess: the permitting process for hoisting a worker is probably simpler than the alternative of using a child’s toy controllable by iPhone.

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