Drone airspace resembles spectrum in the 1980s, an appreciating asset that could be bought, subleased, traded, and borrowed against – if it were only permitted.
Much like legacy spectrum policy, there is immense technocratic inertia towards rationing airspace use to a few lucky drone companies. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has begun drafting long-distance drone rules for services like home delivery, business-to-business delivery, and surveying. In the next decade, drone services companies will deploy mass-market parcel delivery and medical deliveries in urban and suburban areas to make deliveries and logistics faster, cheaper, and greener.
…Federal officials recognize that the current centralized system of air traffic management won’t work for drones: at peak times today, US air traffic controllers actively manage only about 5,400 en route aircraft.
Red flags abound, however. FAA’s current plans for drone traffic management, while vague and preliminary, are clear about what happens once local congestion occurs: the agency will step in to ration airspace and routes how it sees fit. Further, the agency says it will closely oversee the development of airspace management technologies. This is a recipe for technology lock-in and intractable regulatory battles.
US aviation history offers the alarming precedent of expert planning for a new industry. In 1930 President Hoover’s Postmaster General, who regulated airmail routes, and a handpicked group of business executives teamed up to “rationalize” the nascent airline marketplace. In private meetings, they eliminated the established practice of competitive bidding for air routes, divided routes amongst themselves, and reduced the number of startup airlines from around forty to three.
“Universal” and “interoperable” air traffic management are popular concepts in the drone industry, but these principles have destroyed innovation and efficiency in traditional airspace management. The costly US air traffic management system still relies on voice communications and manual writing and passing of paper slips. Large, legacy users and vendors dominate upgrade efforts, and “update by consensus” means the injection of innumerable veto points. Drone traffic management will be “clean sheet,” but interoperable systems are incredibly difficult to build and, once built, to upgrade with new technology and processes. More than 16,000 FAA employees worked on the over-budget, pared-down, years-delayed air traffic management upgrades for traditional aviation.
…To avoid anticompetitive “route-squatting” and sclerotic bureaucratic control of a new industry, aviation regulators should announce a national policy of “airspace markets” – government sales of high-demand drone routes, resembling present-day government spectrum auctions.