Aviation Regulator FAA Proposes Tracking Drones to Enhance Safety, Security

December 27, 2019 Updated: December 28, 2019

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) filed a proposed rule on Thursday that would require most drones operating in U.S. airspace to allow remote tracking.

The proposed rule involves equipping drones with remote identification (remote ID) technology which would function like an electronic license plate. The rule, which would take effect within three years after it is finalized, would require all drones that weigh more than 0.55 pounds to allow themselves and their operators to be tracked and identified at all times during flight.

“Remote ID technologies will enhance safety and security by allowing the FAA, law enforcement, and Federal security agencies to identify drones flying in their jurisdiction,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao in a statement.

The FAA notes that the remote ID technology will act as an “important building block in the unmanned traffic management ecosystem” and would help prevent mid-air collisions, although the agency says they are rare.

The agency made its proposal available online through the Federal Register as part of a 60-day window where drone operators and others who are concerned about aviation safety can submit feedback, which will be considered by the agency prior to it finalizing the rule.

According to the FAA, drones are known to be increasingly at risk for use in potentially illegal activities, including “the carrying and smuggling of controlled substances, illicit drugs, and other payloads; the unlawful invasion of privacy; illegal surveillance and reconnaissance; the weaponization of [drones]; sabotaging of critical infrastructure; property theft; disruption; and harassment.”

The FAA’s website states that the technology would also help authorities make the decision when a drone—also referred to as an unmanned aircraft system (UAS)—”appears to be flying in an unsafe manner or where the drone is not allowed to fly.”

“As a pilot, my eye is always on safety first,” FAA Administrator Steve Dickson said in the FAA release. “Safety is a joint responsibility between government, pilots, the drone community, the general public and many others who make our nation so creative and innovative.”

It will also help authorities decide when to intercept or destroy a drone that poses a security or safety threat.

Drones appear to be a fast-growing segment of the transportation sector, with nearly 1.5 million drones and 160,000 remote pilots currently registered with the FAA.

The FAA’s proposed rule comes just months after a bipartisan group of U.S. senators introduced a bill—the American Security Drone Act of 2019 (S.2502)—to prevent national security risks associated with drones made in countries that may threaten national security by prohibiting the U.S. government from procuring them.

The bill, introduced on Sept. 18, would ban federal departments and agencies from buying any commercial off-the-shelf drone or small UAS, either manufactured or assembled in countries deemed a national security threat. China was named among those countries, as well as Iran.

“Like it or not, drones are our future. Without Congressional action, adversaries like China and Iran will use drone technology as tiny Trojan Horses to spy on our government, our critical infrastructure—even our hospitals and homes,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said in a statement at the time.

In October, the Department of the Interior (DOI) grounded a fleet of 800 drones over concerns that the drones—manufactured in China or with components manufactured in China—could be used by the Chinese regime to conduct surveillance activities on its users.

The DOI is a frequent user of non-military drones for missions such as supporting wildland firefighting, the inspection and mapping of dams and aircraft accidents, and the monitoring of volcanic activity.

Frank Fang and Janita Kan contributed to this report.

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