Last month, SpaceX, a private space company, had to cancel the launch of a rocket due to a helicopter entering an area around the launch site, where the Federal Aviation Administration had placed a …
Last month, SpaceX, a private space company, had to cancel the launch of a rocket due to a helicopter entering an area around the launch site, where the Federal Aviation Administration had placed a temporary flight restriction (TFR). When someone flies into a TFR, the FAA halts the launch.
It was not the first time an aircraft flew into a TFR and disrupted the company’s plans. The last time the FAA tried to stop a SpaceX launch, the company launched anyway.
After the June launch was stopped, Elon Musk, SpaceX CEO, tweeted that the TFR around the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where the rockets are launched, is “unreasonably gigantic.” The area is about 60 miles long and extends about as far out over the Atlantic Ocean.
“There is simply no way that humanity can become a spacefaring civilization without major regulatory reform,” Musk wrote on Twitter.
SpaceX received a $2.6 billion contract from NASA through the agency’s Commercial Crew Program, to execute a program that NASA estimated would cost closer to $34.5 billion.
Innovation in the private sector not only brings us new products that make our lives better, it does so at price tags far below that of government programs. That is, when government isn’t squashing innovation with regulations.
There are a number of innovators butting heads with regulators, who act more out of a sense of caution than vision.
During the pandemic of 2020, many distillers started to make hand sanitizer to meet shortages, only to have the FDA step in and stand in the way. The rideshare service, Uber, revolutionized taxi services, making them so much easier to use than traditional taxis. Regulators have been fighting the company ever since it got started.
Even here in Powell, the FAA is holding back the work of GT Aeronautics, which is developing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) for use in weed and pest, and search and rescue operations.
The FAA requires UAVs, also known as drones, to fly below 400 feet and stay within sight of the pilot operating the controls.
Such rules make sense for hobbyists who are just flying around small drones to take photos, but GT Aeronautics is sending aircraft out into the wilderness to seek out invasive plant species or lost hikers. It’s impossible to do that effectively within FAA restrictions. In order to exceed those limits, UAV pilots have to request a variance, which can take up to 90 days to get approved.
Drone technology is so advanced that it is quite possible to safely deliver packages and pizzas using drones — or even emergency medical supplies — but with regulations as they currently are, companies attempting to use UAVs for such services are going to run up against a lot of business-killing regulations. And regulatory reform moves at a glacial pace, far too slow to keep up with innovation.
There are real safety concerns with new technologies, and those are what regulators point to when justifying the restrictions they impose on innovators. The problem is that government makes decisions based on political considerations and not financial ones. So the rules often exceed the level needed for safety.
More than that, regulators are easily influenced by outside special interests. Much of the opposition to Uber came from taxi cartels that didn’t want competition from rideshare services. The established taxi companies lobbied for laws that would have limited what Uber offered its customers. Fortunately, before Uber could be regulated out of existence, it had managed to impress so many of its riders, who enjoyed more convenience, better service, and often better prices than traditional taxis. So, Uber had a lot of happy customers to exert their own political clout against the lobbyists.
For every reasonable regulatory action that brings about greater safety, there are many more examples where political interests or just plain old bureaucratic resistance limit businesses in ways that deprive us of great innovations. We’re often better off without the rules.