News and Commentary. Andy Sage, the head of Unmanned Traffic Management at NATS, the Air Traffic experts in the U.K., recently came under fire for using the phrase “clueless, careless, and criminal” in reference to drone pilots. That he did this while testifying to Parliament was additionally troubling, and Mr. Sage has since issued an apology on the NATS blog.
Mr. Sage is not alone – except perhaps in actually apologizing. It’s not an original phrase. It was also used by FAA representative Angela Stubblefield, telling pilots “not to be one of the 3C’s!” It’s since become infamous in the drone industry – especially because when used in the context of creating drone regulations, it’s neither accurate or useful.
There are clueless, careless and criminal human beings. There are clueless, careless, and criminal automobile drivers, manned aircraft pilots, bus drivers, accountants and regulators. To be sure, there are clueless, careless, and criminal drone pilots too.
But they shouldn’t be the major consideration when it comes to drone regulations.
The clueless or careless pilots are already breaking regulations about licensing, registration and altitude – sometimes because they don’t know about them, or sometimes because they don’t care. Just like there are drivers on the highway breaking speed limits or driving without a license. It’s a problem, but it isn’t going to be solved with more laws – and it doesn’t represent the reality of the drone industry.
The phrase causes regulators to focus on lawbreakers and plays up a fear – statistically unfounded – that drones in general present a grave and growing danger to the average citizen. It leads to complex and heavy handed regulation that simply aims to limit the proliferation of the technology rather than addressing specific needs for clarity, or investment in technologies like remote ID that allow greater transparency into the airspace.
If simple rules like altitude limits and drone registration aren’t being followed now by the “clueless, careless and criminal,” more complex and heavy handed regulations certainly won’t be. Pilots who don’t know they can’t fly over a soccer game aren’t going to suddenly decide to look up a NOTAM or a federal register of laws.
It’s a challenging time for the drone industry – as any industry is challenged at the beginning of it’s growth. If regulators and other stakeholders in the industry keep referring to drone pilots as criminals, it’s going to take a lot longer for public acceptance of drones to grow. If commercial drone operation is allowed to expand, however, more people will become aware of drones in the airspace. They’ll have more contact with drones at their workplace. STEM opportunities with drones will expand at schools. Licensed pilots will be present at the school soccer games. Drones will be a part of local emergency services efforts. We’ll see them along with the Amazon van and the UPS truck. And then, the average citizen who might like to enjoy their recreational drone on the weekends – and train their kid to perhaps be a drone engineer or pilot – will be a lot less clueless.