The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Federal drone advisory panel knocked for ‘lack of transparency and poor management’

A closed meeting of Task Group 1 in July, in Reston, Va. On Wednesday, in Seattle, the group offered a view into its work at a public meeting of the federal Drone Advisory Committee. (Reza A. Marvashti for The Washington Post)

Federal advisers met Wednesday to try to advance U.S. drone policy, with some offering concrete suggestions for opening the nation’s skies and others decrying months of dysfunction and mismanagement they say has tainted the advisory process and some of the materials being presented.

The meeting of the Drone Advisory Committee — whose charge is to advise the Federal Aviation Administration on the burgeoning industry — comes two weeks after President Trump signed a memorandum intended to broadly expand how drones are used in the United States using a new pilot program.

San Francisco Mayor Edwin M. Lee (D), in a sharply worded letter distributed to the group headed by Intel chief executive Brian Krzanich, cited the “lack of transparency and poor management” of one of the committee’s subgroups. In January, the FAA gave that panel, known as Task Group 1, the difficult job of determining what role federal, state and local officials should play in regulating drones buzzing over communities at low altitudes.

“There is a stark imbalance of perspectives and viewpoints favoring industry interests at the expense of local and state governments and members of the public,” Lee’s letter said. “Because the process was flawed, the recommendations produced by that process are also flawed.”

San Francisco mayor’s letter on drones

The Washington Post reported last month that Task Group 1 has held months of confidential meetings, which some critics said could violate the Federal Advisory Committee Act, and that the proceedings had been riven by distrust and accusations of outsize industry influence.

A presentation prepared for Wednesday’s meeting, posted on the advisory committee website and marked “final,” listed nine “common principles” developed by Task Group 1. But there was no consensus on four of those principles, participants said.

Those four — covering how drones could impact private property rights, how takeoffs and landings should be regulated, how altitude measurements might be taken, and the role of local governments in overseeing safe drone equipment and operations — were each, confusingly, listed a second time in the presentation as a “common principle” with an “alternate opinion response.”

That prompted Lee to allege that “the work has been misrepresented.”

A representative of RTCA, a contractor that manages the group for the FAA and bills itself as a public-private expert in developing consensus on aviation, declined to answer questions.

But responding to an outpouring of criticism from members of Task Group 1, RTCA created a second version of the final slide presentation for display at the session Wednesday, with clearer language listing “Option 1” and “Option 2” on principles where there was disagreement.

The damage was done, however.

A U.S. drone advisory group has been meeting in secret for months. It hasn’t gone well.

“This is not what a consensus process should be,” Lee wrote. “The ability to reasonably regulate to ensure public safety, privacy, and to minimize public nuisance are cornerstones of the role of local government,” and the principles presented do not protect that cornerstone, he said.

After a top Lee aide read parts of the letter, Brendan Schulman, a lobbyist with Chinese drone manufacturer DJI who co-chairs Task Group 1, rejected the mayor’s critique. Schulman describes his leadership role as constructive and inclusive. “The mayor’s letter couldn’t be more wrong about the task group process,” Schulman said in a statement. “We have been welcoming of broad participation from the beginning.”

The issues at stake are vast, touching on questions of federalism, surveillance and security — and an industry worth billions. While the federal government controls the nation’s “navigable airspace,” local officials have long had police powers over such crimes as voyeurism and control over land-use issues. Finding the balance between those without suppressing innovation or undercutting public safety has been a major challenge.

FAA Deputy Administrator Dan Elwell told the advisory committee, which was hosted by Amazon in Seattle, that Task Group 1 had been given “a seemingly impossible task.”

“The lack of consensus with Task Group 1 was neither unexpected nor a fatal flaw. Congress itself couldn’t reach agreement on many of the questions we asked of you,” Elwell said.

Elwell said Task Group 1 will be reconstituted and given a new job away from policy and politics. Instead, it will be asked to provide “the technical and operational recommendations we need to implement the pilot program” Trump administration officials announced last month.

Under the pilot, states and localities, teamed with industry, can apply to do things with drones that are not generally allowed under FAA rules. Those include flying at night, over people or out of the range of what the operator can see.

Trump administration to allow quick and dramatic expansion of drone use

Elwell said the pilot “will create a mechanism for the private sector and state, local and tribal governments to make experience-based and data-driven contributions to integrating drones.”

An FAA official said Wednesday that 633 entities — among them cities, counties, academic institutions and emergency responders — have indicated they plan to apply for the pilot program.

Task Group 1 members have included Amazon, which is pursuing drone package delivery; Facebook, which is developing drones as part of an Internet service; American Airlines; which has assorted aviation industry interests; and representatives of state and local governments. (Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

One point of agreement amid the discord on the group was that a public process, including things such as hearings and notices, should be used to make sure any possible regulations are reasonable.

A second Drone Advisory Committee panel, Task Group 2, pushed forward Wednesday with its recommendations that the FAA create a program easing the way for companies to fly drones far beyond a controller’s “line of sight.” Such operations are required for the kind of delivery services and other commercial efforts that have captured the imagination of industry.