FAA panel recommends tracking drones, but dispute lingers over including hobbyists
A Federal Aviation Administration panel has recommended ways to begin identifying and tracking drones in the air, which is a key requirement to develop commercial uses for remote-controlled aircraft such as deliveries.
But the panel couldn’t reach a consensus on which drones should fall under the rules. That leaves the FAA to decide whether to include hobbyists, for example, or just focus on commercial drones when it develops its rule.
The Academy of Model Aeronautics, an influential group of about 200,000 recreational pilots, asked for an exemption for pilots that fly drones within sight and have programming that automatically returns the aircraft to where it took off.
However, commercial-drone advocates and airline pilots said leaving out large numbers of hobbyist drones would defeat the purpose of identifying and tracking the aircraft.
Tracking drones is a crucial step toward adopting a system like air-traffic control for airliners: to guide flights in crowded skies and to avoid midair collisions.
A hobbyist’s drone collided with an Army helicopter in New York on Sept. 21, which the National Transportation Safety Board blamed on the drone pilot’s unfamiliarity with flight rules.
Nothing has been decided yet. The FAA will develop a rule in the coming months based on recommendations from the panel’s 213-page report released Tuesday. The group with 74 members from industry, police, manufacturers and researchers was called the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Identification and Tracking Aviation Rulemaking Committee.
“The FAA will use the data and recommendations in the ARC report in crafting a proposed rule for public comment,” the FAA said in a statement.
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As rules evolve for commercial drones, Congress explicitly prevented them from applying to hobbyists. A 2012 FAA law said rules for commercial drones didn’t apply to recreational drones that “operate in accordance with a community-based set of safety guidelines and within the programming of a nationwide community-based organization.”
A defense bill that became law this month revived an FAA drone registry to help track down an owner after a mishap through an identification number on the aircraft.
But the FAA panel created in May was exploring whether to go a step further, by identifying and track drones in the air.
The group recommended the FAA consider two methods, one with a drone sending a signal to anyone who could pick it up and another to a network, such as for air-traffic control or law enforcement. In both cases, signals would be sent to an FAA-approved database.
If the FAA adopted that sort of rule, the goal would be for all drones larger than 9 ounces sold in the U.S. to broadcast a unique signal, nicknamed an electronic license plate. The signal could then be used to develop a traffic-management system.
“We really need it to open up highways in the sky in a way that benefits all of us,” said Lisa Ellman, co-executive director of the Consumer Drone Alliance, an advocacy group that includes Project Wing and Ford.
But the advisory panel reached no consensus on which drones should be forced to broadcast their license plates.
“We agree that tracking and remote identification makes sense at some level,” depending on the drone’s sophistication and capabilities, said Chad Budreau, government affairs director for the AMA. “We strongly believe that we must also continue educating all (drone) pilots, which is what truly equips hobbyists and commercial operators to fly responsibly.”
Groups including the Commercial Drone Alliance, the General Aviation Manufacturers Association and Aerospace Industries Association dissented from the report because of the lack of consensus over who would be covered. The Airborne Law Enforcement Association agreed with the dissent.
“This exemption is a loophole that swallows the rule,” the dissent said.
The purpose is to identify the so-called “careless, clueless and criminal” pilots flying in hazardous way, Ellman said.
“We are concerned by any requirement that would carve out a huge set of drones that are flying out there,” Ellman said. “You can’t have highways in the sky with a bunch of non-participants.”
The Air Line Pilots Association, which represents 59,000 pilots at 33 carriers, urged the FAA to adopt mandatory identification and tracking for drones “as quickly as possible.”
“By requiring (drone) operators to equip their devices with identification and tracking systems, law enforcement officials gain the ability to identify and track down a (drone) pilot who may be involved in a collision or is jeopardizing the safety of our national air space or the general public,” the group said in a statement.
The largest civilian-drone manufacturer, DJI, said the panel’s report cleared the way for more beneficial uses of remote-controlled aircraft. The company said remote identification would allow authorities to enforce laws in rare cases where someone is flying illegally, but that details must still be resolved.
“There is still an important discussion to come about how to balance governmental needs and desires with the burdens, costs and privacy invasions that could be faced by drone pilots, depending on the actual technologies chosen and how they are implemented,” said Brendan Schulman, DJI’s vice president for policy and legal affairs.