SBA ombudsman listens to businesses

Brian-Castro-Photo-100FLoT, a small business in Salida, believes flying drones commercially should be allowed. Now, commercial flight of drones is allowed only if flown for a government.

Further, FLoT believes, the federal government should apply different rules to flights of 747 airliners and  flights of drones.

For example, one of the rules requires all aircraft to carry a five-pound flight manual.

That’s “ridiculous” for UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) to carry a five-pound flight manual, said Chris Vallier, owner of FLoT. With six employees, FLoT is in the research and development phase to provide inspection services for rural electric associations and transmission companies.

FLoT also is working with UCCS in Colorado Springs.

Vallier was one of nine people to testify Aug. 14 before the office of the National Ombudsman for the U.S. Small Business Administration. Vallier’s goal, as with the other witnesses, was to show the SBA ombudsman how federal rules and laws are applied inconsistently and what laws should change and why.

Ombudsman’s role

Brian Castro is the nation’s only SBA ombudsman. His job, the goal of the office, is to help small businesses with red tape, federal rules or regulations or to help a business get paid for a contract with the federal government.

“We provide two things that most small business owners need — help them save time and money,” Castro said prior to the hearing.

If a small business has a problem with a federal agency, the small business can call 888-REG-FAIR or go online and log on to sba.gov/ombudsman. The comments are held in confidence, Castro said.

“The law precludes any agency employee from retaliating against someone who brings a complaint with our office,” said Castro. The SBA ombudsman’s office works with 35 federal agencies. “At the end of the process, there may not be a complete forgiveness of a fine or a penalty, but what we do assure in every case is that the small business owner would have the opportunity to be heard at a high level,” different from the individual who caused the concern.

“We’re a liaison, advocate, ultimately a problem-solver for small business. We need regulations, obviously in things like workplace safety, public health, transportation. Food supply’s a great example.”

Trying to revise law

FLoT hopes to change federal law that now makes it illegal for commercial entities — like Amazon — to fly drones. If it were legal, FLoT could use drones to inspect electrical transmission lines for rural electric associations.

Currently, helicopters are used to inspect rural electric lines, at risk of peril for the crew. He cited an example from January, when a Bell LongRanger helicopter, in flight to inspect electrical lines, crashed in western Colorado, killing three. One reason the FAA has argued against drones is the fear that drones will get in the way of commercial airlines.

“In my opinion, there is some truth to the safety issue, but the potential of these running into a huge aircraft is there,” Vallier said. But he thinks it’s unlikely because commercial airlines fly at much higher elevations than drones.

There’s also the issue of privacy, but “that’s not at all what we have a business model around,” Vallier said.

“For years, it’s been all right with the federal government to use drones and autonomous vehicles to kill people in faraway places,” Vallier said. “What we’re up to has nothing to do with death. At home, we want to save lives and save the environment.”

Aircraft conducting the certifications cost $3.5 million, where a Bell Jet Ranger manned helicopter will cost around $500,000, and a drone would cost between $150,000 and $250,000, Vallier said.

Other issues

Alison Brown, president of Navsys Corporation, a Colorado Springs firm specializing in global positioning systems, inertial navigation systems and communication systems, spoke about the government not following regulations regarding contracting.

“If the government elects to use technology developed through the SBIR [Small Business Innovative Research] program, it’s meant to be a way companies can prove their capability and introduce them into the system as new suppliers,” Brown said. “The regulations are very clear on that, but the implementation of that is not being followed. The agencies are just ignoring the regulations.”

Other companies complained about the same issue, saying NASA and the Army were ignoring the regulations.

Furthermore, the Small Business Administration handles the enforcement, “but they don’t staff for enforcement,” Brown said. “We’re basically raising that concern.”

Barnett Engineering, with its 25-person staff and $25 million in annual revenue, is a growing firm, said spokesman Toro Radames. Radames said one arm of the Defense Department requires a certified DCAA [Defense Contract Audit Agency] system, and another arm of the same agency does not require it.

“One says you don’t need it, and the other says you have to have it,” Radames said. “Consequently, as a very small company it is hindered to go after opportunities.”

Furthermore, after the company calls the DOD to inquire about the regulations, the company receives “silence immediately after the request for information.”