Rogue Drones After Harvey Spotlight Battle Over Commercial Rules

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By Michaela Ross

Unauthorized drone flights in the skies over Houston after Hurricane Harvey may focus attention on tensions between operators and law enforcement over Federal Aviation Administration efforts to write rules for expanded commercial drone uses.

Companies such as Amazon.com Inc. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. that are developing drone delivery technologies are waiting for regulators to ease restrictions on flying drones over people and beyond operators’ lines of sight. However, the new rules have been slowed because law enforcement and government officials want language allowing them to identify and track drones to combat nefarious actors. Operators, though, are leery of such language, citing privacy and safety concerns.

The FAA Aug. 29 prohibited all unauthorized aircraft flights over Houston, including drones, after some private drone operators got in the way of military flights and aerial rescue missions. But government officials can’t do much to enforce the ban, other than hunt down the operators or their drones.

The FAA is trying to create standards to identify and track flying drones, which the agency says will pave the way for regulations allowing more routine flights over people and beyond visual sight lines. Drone operators may be required under the standards to broadcast information such as their operator identity, location or mission to law enforcement.

“The lack of remote ID makes a response to inappropriate and dangerous drone operations even more difficult and complicated,” Dr. John Eagerton, aeronautics bureau chief for the state of Alabama and a member of the FAA-chartered Drone Advisory Committee (DAC), told Bloomberg BNA.

The FAA has formed a rule-making committee to recommend standards for remote drone identification. The committee of industry representatives, local and state officials, researchers, and civil society groups began meeting in June and is slated to complete their work in September.

But the committee is working through a number of sticky questions related to drone operator and manufacturer concerns about privacy, safety and the sharing of proprietary information. For example, the committee is trying to decide what information a drone operator would need to broadcast, and whether they would need to transmit continuously or officials could trigger a transmission if they found an unmanned craft to be suspicious.

Eagerton said that “registration identification on the drone and remote ID are absolutely essential for effective enforcement purposes.”

Eagerton also predicted that law enforcement agencies will eventually be able to go a step further and disable drones endangering public safety. In May, the Trump administration circulated a legislative proposal that would have allowed federal agencies to not only track drones but redirect, disable or destroy ones that pose a security threat in certain conditions, including search and rescue operations, according to two private-sector sources familiar with the proposal who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss it.

The administration had wanted the proposal to be included in the fiscal 2018 defense authorization bill (H.R. 2810, S. 1519), the sources said. Current versions of the bill don’t include the language.

Advances in technology may also help solve the identification issue. In March, SZ DJI Technology Co. said radio equipment already on many drones could transmit identifying information to law enforcement. The company has also developed a technology to help operators of certain drone models avoid helicopters and planes in flight.

Drone operators and manufacturers will be watching how tensions from Harvey may influence ongoing legislative efforts, as well as regulatory standard-setting and rule-making at the FAA. The agency is slated to publish draft rules for operations of UAS over people next February, after delaying a release planned for last December because of remote ID concerns.

To contact the reporter on this story: Michaela Ross in Washington at mross@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Keith Perine at kperine@bna.com

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