The Federal Aviation Administration proclaimed a new era in aviation in September when it granted permission to six Hollywood filmmakers to fly drones on movie sets, a decision that opened the door to commercial drone flights in the United States.
“These companies are blazing a trail,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said at the time. “We are thoroughly satisfied these operations will not pose a hazard to other aircraft or to people and property on the ground,” added Michael Huerta, the chief of the FAA.
What the FAA did not reveal, however, was that senior officials had overruled objections from some of its safety inspectors, who had warned after a formal review that the filmmakers’ plans were too risky and should be prohibited, according to documents and e-mails obtained by The Washington Post.
The warning turned out to be prescient. On Wednesday, a camera-toting drone operated by one of the filmmakers, Pictorvision, flew off a set in California and disappeared, according to an FAA report. Tom Hallman, the president of Pictorvision, said crew members found the 20-pound drone the next day in “rugged terrain” on a private ranch about 100 yards from where they had been filming near Santa Clarita. He said no one was injured.
Since giving the go-ahead to Hollywood cinematographers three months ago, the FAA has been swamped with requests to fly drones from other companies. As of Friday, 167 applications from an array of industries were pending, and the government is bracing for hundreds more next year.
Several FAA employees, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation or losing their jobs, said supervisors are pressuring analysts to rubber-stamp the applications without a rigorous safety review.
“There’s huge political pressure to do quick approvals,” said one former FAA flight safety official. “Congress made very clear what they want, and safety is not at the forefront because of pressure from the industry.”
Safety inspectors said they were being marginalized in other ways. Last month, the FAA hired a lobbyist for the Hollywood filmmakers and other companies that want to fly drones. His task? Suggest ways to speed up the approval process.
“How is this not a conflict of interest?” Lance Nuckolls, an FAA safety inspector, complained in an e-mail to colleagues. “I’m now officially numb with total dismay and disgust with our leadership.”
After The Washington Post raised questions about the arrangement, the FAA acknowledged that it had been a conflict of interest and said it ended the contract Thursday.
The FAA’s caseload is cresting at a critical time and is aggravating disagreements within the agency over how to open the nation’s skies to drones. Cheap, easy-to-fly drones equipped with video cameras have become hugely popular with consumers and hobbyists. But in the absence of clear safety standards and effective oversight, the robotic aircraft are interfering with air traffic and threatening passenger planes.
Since June 1, pilots have reported 25 near-collisions with rogue drones and about 150 other incidents in which drones were spotted in forbidden airspace. Although most weighed only a few pounds, aviation experts said they could have caused a midair disaster if they had struck a plane or helicopter in a vulnerable spot.
Drones can also hurt bystanders on the ground. According to an FAA document, four people have been killed in recent years around the world after remote-controlled aircraft crashed into them.
James H. Williams, the head of the FAA’s unmanned-aircraft integration office, declined an interview request or to comment for this story. Last month, during a panel discussion at a drone-industry conference in Tysons Corner, Va., he said the agency always puts safety first.
“There are approximately 48,000 people in the FAA, and as far as I know, all of them have an opinion on unmanned aircraft integration, so coordinating across that body is an interesting challenge,”
Williams said. “The FAA remains committed to our primary mission of safety, and that’s safety not only for the other aircraft in the air but for people and property on the ground.”
In a statement provided to The Post, the FAA said its drone application process was “rigorous” and “transparent.”
“The safety case for each application is thoroughly analyzed and the rationale for each decision is publicly available,” the FAA said. “As with any emerging technology, there is a very active debate about how to approach integration, and the FAA has decided to take a staged approach.”
Struggling to keep upBogged down by staff shortages and a slow-moving regulatory structure, the FAA has failed to keep up with rapid technological advances in the drone industry.
Although Congress has ordered the agency to integrate drones into the national airspace by September 2015, U.S. officials expect the FAA will miss the deadline by at least two years before it can finalize regulations for drones weighing less than 55 pounds. Devising rules for larger drones will take even longer.
Until then, the FAA has stitched together an interim patchwork of guidelines. Businesses are prohibited from flying drones without special approval. Recreational drone flights are allowed as long as the aircraft stay below 400 feet and five miles away from an airport. The military and other government agencies need a certificate to fly in civilian airspace.
The guidelines, however, are routinely ignored by drone enthusiasts. With an estimated half-million small drones spinning around America’s skies, the FAA has been overwhelmed.
To alleviate pressure from lawmakers and drone manufacturers to adopt a permanent set of rules more quickly, the FAA announced in May that it will offer a temporary remedy.
The agency said it will consider granting approval to certain types of low-risk businesses — such as pipeline inspectors, filmmakers and corporate farmers — to fly drones weighing less than 55 pounds. Requests would be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.
Within days, applications started pouring in.
Insurance giant State Farm wanted to fly 15-pound drones over houses to conduct roof inspections. Chevron and Dow Chemical wanted to use drones to keep an eye on their oil, gas and chemical plants. Amazon.com wanted to test drones to see if they can reliably transport packages to customers’ doorsteps (Jeffrey P. Bezos, the chief executive of Amazon, also owns The Post).
Each of those cases is pending. The FAA has said its policy is to make a decision on each application within 120 days. It met that timetable for the Hollywood filmmakers but has struggled to keep up with the avalanche of new cases.
From the outset, several FAA aviation-safety inspectors complained that senior officials were more interested in speedy approvals than ensuring safety, according to documents and e-mails.
“As I’ve said before, we can do this job ‘good’ or we can do it ‘fast,’ but we can’t do it ‘good and fast,’ ” James Ryan, an aviation-safety inspector, said in a July 24 e-mail to the FAA official in charge of reviewing the applications and several other colleagues.
No anti-collision systemsSatellite-guided drones can be purchased for less than $500 and flown right out of the box. But their affordability and simplicity masks a lack of basic safeguards that are required for other aircraft.
A fundamental principle of aviation safety is that pilots must be able to see and avoid other planes and objects in the sky — something that drones cannot do. Drones are equipped with cameras that have a limited field of vision. Researchers are working on substitute technologies, but solutions are years away.
Most models are too small to carry radar, transponders and anti-collision systems that regular planes rely on to avoid crashes. Radio transmissions that control navigation are vulnerable to interference and hacking. Many consumer drones are prone to “flyaways,” or flights that vanish and stop responding to commands.
The FAA has certified the airworthiness of only a few drone types for private use. Furthermore, the agency has yet to establish a new kind of pilot’s license for drone operators or minimum training standards.
As a result, when the Hollywood filmmakers filed their drone applications in May, they had to seek exemptions from 15 FAA safety regulations. That number alone raised red flags inside the agency.
“Seems to be a stretch concerning the world’s most robust aviation safety system,” safety analyst Silas Still wrote to colleagues in a June 4 e-mail. He did not respond to requests for further comment.
The six cinematographers — Astraeus Aerial, Pictorvision, Aerial Mob, HeliVideo Productions, Vortex Aerial and Snaproll Media — filed identically worded bids and were backed by the Motion Picture Association of America. Also submitting letters of support was the News Media Coalition, a group of publishers, broadcasters and wire services that includes The Post. The coalition advocates the use of drones for news gathering, a practice prohibited by the FAA.
The filmmakers’ applications omitted some rudimentary details, such as the make, model and performance history of the drones that would be used. They were described only as “rotorcraft” that would fly no faster than 58 mph.
After the FAA insisted on knowing more, the filmmakers identified the types of drones on the condition that the agency keep the details a secret, saying the information was “proprietary,” according to FAA case files.
The cinematographers stated they would abide by other limitations: They wouldn’t fly the drones above 400 feet or for more than 30 minutes at a time. The aircraft would be restricted to closed movie sets on private or “controlled-access” property, and would have to remain within sight of the pilot or a ground observer.
Approval, despite rejection
The biggest hurdle was determining what kind of qualifications the drone pilots would need.
Under long-standing FAA rules, anyone operating an aircraft for hire must have a commercial pilot’s license. The Hollywood companies contended that a private pilot’s license — which is much easier to attain — would be sufficient for their drone operators.
Just because commercial pilots are highly qualified to fly regular aircraft, the firms argued, doesn’t
mean they’d know how a drone works. Moreover, commercial pilots would pose a “significant financial burden” because they command higher pay and take longer to train, according to documents the filmmakers filed with the FAA.
The arguments didn’t pass muster with two FAA aviation-safety inspectors, James Ryan and James Kenney, who drafted a denial that would have shot down the filmmakers’ applications.
Enabling private pilots to work commercially would set a precedent, the inspectors wrote, boxing in the FAA while it developed a permanent set of drone regulations. They also noted that private pilots are twice as likely to be involved in fatal accidents as commercial pilots.
While the cinematographers said it would be safer to fly small drones than to film with a manned helicopter or airplane, the FAA inspectors questioned whether there were sufficient precautions to prevent an out-of-control drone from hurtling off a movie set.
“The petitioner has not explained an acceptable means of providing for the safety of the uninformed, non-participating public,” according to the inspectors’ draft denial.
The inspectors’ proposed rejection alarmed FAA supervisors, who urged them to reconsider, documents show.
“This is a high-priority activity,” Rob Pappas, the FAA’s special rules coordinator for drones, reminded the inspectors and other FAA employees in an Aug. 20 e-mail. He advised them to “think outside the box and be careful not to automatically fit rules that apply to aircraft weighing 1000s of pounds to these small [drones].”
Kenney and Ryan stood firm and submitted a recommended denial a week later.
Kenney and Ryan declined to comment, while Pappas did not respond to e-mails and a phone call seeking comment. Jonathan B. Hill, a Washington attorney who represents the filmmakers, declined an interview request.
In the end, the inspectors were overruled by senior FAA officials. The agency granted formal approval to the six filmmakers in September, finding that their plans were in the public interest and would “enhance safety” compared with using regular aircraft on a movie set. (A seventh cinematographer, Flying-Cam, won approval in October).
Hallman, the president of Pictorvision, the firm that had one of its drone fly away last week, said the FAA approval process was “extremely thorough” and dismissed suggestions that the agency had been too lenient. “I’ve never heard anyone say they didn’t go far enough.”
Ethics concernsOne person who was pleased by the approvals was John W. McGraw, a private aerospace consultant and former deputy flight standards director for the FAA. McGraw had been hired by the Hollywood firms to shepherd their bids through the FAA’s regulatory process.
At the drone-industry conference in Virginia in November, McGraw praised the FAA for approving the applications within 120 days. “I had advised my clients, I had downplayed the expectations,” he said. “Lo and behold, I have to say the FAA, not because I used to work there, did a magnificent job.”
As scores of new applications piled up, however, FAA leaders worried they would miss the 120-day deadline in other cases. So they decided to hire consultants to help streamline their case-review system.
On. Nov. 12, FAA employees were startled to learn that one of the new consultants would be McGraw, the advocate for the Hollywood filmmakers. A new organizational chart listed McGraw as reporting directly to Pappas, the special rules coordinator, even though McGraw still represented several companies with pending drone applications.
Lance Nuckolls, the FAA safety inspector who had e-mailed his colleagues to denounce the arrangement, said in a phone interview that he didn’t understand how the FAA could hire a consultant actively involved from the other side. “It was just a frustration over the ethics of it all,” he said. Nuckolls stressed that he otherwise fully supported the FAA’s review process for commercial drone flights.
Other documents indicated McGraw was working on behalf of SeaTec, an FAA contractor. According to briefing slides prepared by SeaTec, McGraw and other consultants were assigned to help the FAA devise a more “effective and efficient process” for approving drone applications.
In a phone interview, McGraw described his consulting role both as “very minor” and “at a very high level.”
He said he was not involved in reviewing individual applications and has merely explained the FAA’s inner workings to SeaTec. “We had a lot of discussion about how to firewall me.” He said the FAA organizational chart that listed him as a team member had been drawn up in error.
At the same time, McGraw said he realized some safety inspectors had objections to how the agency was handling drone applications in general.
“I’m not surprised some people are concerned about it,” he said. “Change is hard.”
In a statement, the FAA said it had been “assured by the contractor” that McGraw would not work on the project to streamline the drone application review process. “Upon further review we learned that . . . the contractor did allow him to participate on the project, creating a conflict of interest.” As a result, the agency said it “stopped work” with SeaTec and would not rely on any of its recommendations.
Jack Schmitt, a SeaTec executive in charge of the project, did not respond to requests for comment.
In a subsequent interview, McGraw said he was disappointed by the decision, noting that FAA officials had originally approved the arrangement.
“We asked that question before the project started and the FAA said, ‘No, you’re fine,’” he said.
“There was nothing that was done that would affect any of my clients, so the reality is there was no influence.”
Craig Whitlock covers the Pentagon and national security. He has reported for The Washington Post since 1998.