Drone-Crowded Skies Get One Step Closer With U.S. Security Rules

By Alan Levin | December 28, 2020

Commercial drone use for deliveries and services is set to clear a major hurdle in the U.S. as soon as this week with new requirements that most of the devices transmit a radio beacon with a digital license plate to help ensure safety and prevent misuse.

All but the smallest drones will have to broadcast a radio signal identifying them and their location under new Federal Aviation Administration regulations, according to a summary of the action reviewed by Bloomberg News.

The new regulations, which become effective 30 months after the rule is made final, are an important foundation required before drone deliveries and other commerce can occur. They mark the most significant regulatory expansion in drone capabilities since the devices first trickled into civilian markets starting about a decade ago.

The rules will be “an essential building block toward safely allowing more complex” drone operations, the agency said in the summary.

A SZ DJI Technology Co. Mavic 2 Zoom drone flies over the Brooklyn Navy Yard in the Brooklyn Borough of New York, U.S., on Thursday, Aug. 23, 2018. Photographer: Mark Kauzlarich/Bloomberg

The actions break a regulatory roadblock that had held up growth in pilotless aircraft technology in the U.S. Requiring an ID broadcast addresses concerns from federal law enforcement and homeland security agencies that the increasingly capable flying machines would be used for crime and terrorism.

Several years ago the FAA had been set to expand drone flights over crowds in some cases and to allow them routinely at night, but the other agencies wouldn’t permit it to move ahead with the rules until it addressed growing concerns about misuse of the devices. Separate rules for operating over crowds are also expected soon.

The FAA hasn’t commented on its plans for the new regulation. The White House’s Office of Management and Budget concluded its review of the regulation on Wednesday, according to its website.

It will still be years before swarms of drones operated by companies such as Amazon.com Inc.’s Prime Air, Alphabet Inc. offshoot Wing and United Parcel Service Inc. buzz over neighborhoods dropping off packages. But the new rules provide an important platform for the industry to move toward those goals.

A robust drone tracking system is needed to ensure the public accepts these new businesses, UPS Flight Forward said in comments on the proposal earlier this year. “If illegal and unsafe operators cannot be identified and stopped, confidence in the system will be eroded and voluntary compliance will be undermined,” the company wrote.

The new regulation will require drones weighing more than 0.55 pounds (0.25 kilograms) to broadcast their identity on a low-power radio frequency such as Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. In that way, police or other authorities can monitor nearby drones.

Civilian drones offered for sale in the U.S. must be equipped with such technology starting 18 months after the rules are finalized, according to the summary. Operators aren’t permitted to take off without a working ID beacon.

The regulations also allow for existing drones to be retrofitted with such a system.

The rule doesn’t require that the devices broadcast on a signal that can be transmitted by mobile phone systems to a national tracking network, a measure that was originally included in a proposal unveiled last year.

Wing, Amazon and others seeking to create delivery businesses had urged the FAA to allow for such an internet-based national network to track the devices.

Hobbyists who fly the devices can seek exemptions allowing them to operate without an ID beacon, so long as they’re flown in restricted areas approved by the FAA. Flying clubs such as the Academy of Model Aeronautics and educational institutions can apply for such exemptions.

The FAA, heeding requests from recreational users and industry groups, is adding privacy restrictions that will make it impossible for the public to identify the operator of a drone using the ID beacon.

The FAA will keep that information confidential, it said in the summary, providing it to law enforcement and national security agencies if asked. That’s a departure from traditional aviation where FAA’s flight-tracking data is typically public.

The new rules are an attempt to address the explosion of drone use. The FAA had registered almost 1 million recreational drone users and they owned 1.3 million of the devices as of last year. An additional 385,000 commercial drones had been registered with the agency, according to its data.

At the same time, there’s been a surge of reports of the devices flying dangerously near traditional planes and helicopters — even Air Force One — and cases of them being used for drug smuggling or terrorist attacks in other nations. The National Transportation Safety Board has concluded drones were involved in several U.S. midair collisions.

Because the regulations were seen as helpful for the industry, the rough concept had wide support. However, the FAA’s proposal for ID beacons issued a year ago drew more than 53,000 public comments as various constituents dueled over how it should be implemented.

Traditional hobbyists who for decades have flown model aircraft, some of which don’t have the electronics to support a radio beacon, said by the thousands that they were concerned the rules would be too restrictive.

More recent recreational users flying small copters said they were worried about retrofitting their aircraft or adding costly new requirements. Many also raised privacy concerns about how the tracking information could be used.

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