Drones and FAA Rulemaking: Winning The ARC Game

In recent weeks, commentators have expressed a wide range of emotions about the proceedings of the FAA UAS Identification and Tracking Rulemaking Committee (ARC). From concern, lament and anger to praise and everything in between, no organization was left unscathed, including the Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) members and FAA itself.

Why?

Plain and simple, many don’t understand the ARC process—especially those in the nascent UAS industry.

Speaking from the perspective of serving on ARCs and having supported ARC participants on many complex subjects, it is easy to underestimate the effort needed to support a named participant. And unless you're in the room (or closely tied to someone who is), it's hard to envision the extent of the back-and-forth that every ARC features between members that, while part of the same industry, are often at odds on specific issues.

Put simply, being successful in an ARC process requires more than a seat at the table. It necessitates a strategic approach—a gameplan, if you will.

Here are some lessons we’ve learned from years of playing the ARC game.

What is an ARC?

Title 49 gives the FAA authority to convene an aviation rulemaking committee consisting of “specialist[s] who evaluate issues that could result in rulemaking.” In practical terms, FAA convenes ARCs for three reasons:

  • To gather information on new technologies and evaluate how industry participants approach major technical hurdles.
  • To put industry participants in the same room and have them beat themselves silly to come to consensus on key issues, and
  • To provide the FAA with organizational cover for tough decisions it will make that cost industry billions of dollars.

Also remember, the ARC is advisory. There is no assurance that an ARC report will ever be made public, or that the rules that the FAA will propagate will look like an ARC recommendation. The ARC process is not altruistic, so don’t expect it to be. Winning on this playing field means understanding the rules—both written and implied.

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ARC Members

One thing we've learned from our ARC experience: one of the bigger factors in whether FAA offers a seat at the table is the individual's or organization's ability to support the ARC's work. These committees generate lots of work, and as you would expect, the FAA has an interest in seeing that the taskings are accomplished and the load is shared. Some ARCs are so large that the FAA may even hire an outside firm to perform the administrative management.

The best way an individual or organization can demonstrate that they will step up to the plate is to have done work on other ARCs, FAA meetings, and forums, or provided insightful comments on other FAA rulemaking. With FAA, familiarity breeds confidence that you will do the job.

 

That said, there are the “usual suspects” that FAA can and often does tap. These are usually trade associations, whose business is to support (read: push) their agendas using any available vehicle. Make no mistake, trade associations excel in gathering the resources, financial and intellectual, to support their ARC members.

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Rest assured: every word an association-backed ARC member utters is scripted to the exact needs of the trade association and its members. But it doesn’t stop there because associations want the voices of their ARC members to be more impactful than others—and they have a plan.

Playing The Game

Associations may spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to support their ARC members. How is this done? First, association positions at an ARC are turned into public-messaging campaigns conducted through social media and the traditional press.

A smart association will not message exact ARC positions, but will message benefits of their positions, and highlight deficiencies of competing positions.

 

Here’s an example: Let’s say you, an association representing manufacturers of orange paint, were involved in an ARC to determine what color airplanes should be painted. You might use social media and the press to message the wonderful corrosion-control properties of certain paint ingredients you use in your orange paint. You could then question the wisdom of ingredients used by your competitors, which don't offer orange paint.

Such subtle tactics—you never lobbied for orange paint, after all—help keep your hands clean, while ensuring your position remains top-of-mind.

But it doesn't stop there. A savvy plan will take the message to Capitol Hill, targeting members of key committees and other lawmakers—those that represent districts with ties to your business, for instance—that have reasons to pay attention. This sets the stage for action over and above the ARC—laws have weight that ARC reports don't, remember.

Associations with deeper pockets will also leverage the power of “educational forums” at key think tanks and universities. What could be better than an education discussion that promotes your position on key matters?

Winning The Game

So what can you do?

Getting involved in an ARC doesn't have to be a futile pursuit. If you are a company going up against an association, make sure you understand their game plan, and adapt yours accordingly. If you are a new association, detail a complete strategy for your seat at the table

Next time you look at an ARC’s makeup, remember that most members are not sitting there alone, especially ones that do not have a long track record of contributing significant technical input to the industry.

Rather, they're likely supported by a big legal team, a public messaging campaign, and perhaps university research. All of this serves to amplify their voices.

If you were disappointed by the UAS ARC, remember drone industry: showing up to play is just the start. Absent a detailed gameplan and some experienced coaches, you're probably not going to like the final score.