What is the Federal Aviation Administration doing with drones? No one knows—it doesn't even know. Maybe that's by design.
On Friday, the agency said that AC 91-57, the 33-year-old document that guides drone operation in the United States was canceled. Today, it's back on the books. This is the latest in a very long string of completely paradoxical moves made by the agency.
Let's recap. Since the beginning of the year, the FAA has:
- Lost a federal court case in which it tried to fine a man $10,000 for operating his drone commercially
- Asserted that the unenforceable guidelines it used to fine the man are still valid
- Let the Catholic Church fly a drone in one of the few places that it actually could enforce rules
- Issued cease-and-desist letters to dozens of businesses
- Argued in court that its cease-and-desist letters are not legally enforceable
- Got that decision confirmed by a court, therefore invalidating its cease-and-desist letters
- Continued sending these cease-and-desist letters after the court decision
- Demanded that a search-and-rescue team stop flying drones
- Gave permission to the search-and-rescue team to resume flying drones
- Said its new "interpretation" of a law was an enforceable regulation, before public comment was done
- Been sued by three separate entities for its interpretation
- Canceled AC 91-57
- Uncanceled AC 91-57
- Pissed off its only friend in the model aircraft world, the Academy of Model Aircraft (one of the groups now suing it)
So, back to the agency's latest self-contradiction. On Friday, we reported that AC 91-57, the 1981 document that many drone operators hold up as evidence that any FAA guidelines on drones are voluntary, was likely going away. We had good reason to do that: The FAA issued a memorandum that said as much, and the document itself was listed as "canceled" on its website.
Today, the cancellation notice is gone, and AC 91-57 is back. What gives?
perhaps it just wants everyone to be too busy scratching their heads to fly their drones
There are two explanations: The FAA is either utterly incompetent, or it's purposefully trying to make its interim drone rules as confusing as possible in hopes that people will decide not to bother.
According to the Academy of Model Aeronautics, the nation's largest model aircraft hobby group (which often works closely with the FAA on legislative and regulatory issues), the AC 91-57 cancellation notice was "posted in error."
A Motherboard request for information on the cancellation notice was unreturned by the FAA.
In a communication earlier today with Jim Williams, Executive Manager of the FAA UAS Integration Office, it was learned that the announcement was premature and the cancellation notice on the FAA webpage was posted in error.
FAA does plan to cancel AC 91-57 in order to reconcile the outdated AC with current sUAS policy and the "Special Rule for Model Aircraft" provided by Congress as part of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. However, this will occur at a later date and will be accompanied by additional information and an explanation as to the reason for the cancellation.
The idea that this was all just one innocent mixup is hard to believe for many commercial and hobby drone pilots who have kept a close eye on the FAA's drone regulation saga.
There's official documentation of the agency's plan to cancel the document (and the two-pronged nature of both posting the cancelation notice and changing the original document's status online suggests this wasn't simply the case of someone hitting the button too early).
"Totally incomprehensible. They had a memo and everything," Christopher Vo, an organizer of the Washington DC Area Drone User group (which has about 1,400 members), wrote on a Facebook post discussing the cancelation.
Others on that thread also expressed confusion at what, exactly, is going on at the FAA. It's become increasingly clear that, purposefully or not, confusion is what's to be expected out of the agency, at least for now.
Sources I've spoken to for other stories, who have knowledge of the FAA's internal drone regulation team, tell me that the agency is massively understaffed and underfunded; that there is extensive infighting about how restrictive the rules should be; and that many of them don't even understand the technology.
Meanwhile, internal memos obtained by a Freedom of Information Act request earlier this year show the agency has made very little progress on an official rule, and, though the rule is well past due, an initial draft isn't expected by sometime late next month, at the very earliest.
The FAA's own test site operators say that it has not given them directives for how or when they can fly, or what they're even supposed to be testing.
At this point, it's beyond clear that the confusion it's created has given the FAA some time to get its house in order, and maybe that's the game plan here. There's no obvious, quick regulatory fix until there is an actual rule, and these things take time (though it's taken way too much time at this point).
Many commercial drone operators and hobbyists are happy to fly without FAA permission, but many others are not. It's presumably easier to police the skies with fewer drones in them.
If the FAA can't get its act together well enough to give pilots clear directives, well, perhaps it just wants everyone to be too busy scratching their heads to fly their drones.