Despite Gov. Jerry Brown’s unwillingness to approve legislation regulating the use of unmanned aircraft-drones, federal agencies and legislators are preparing to take action.
This week, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced the creation of a task force to develop recommendations for a registration process for unmanned aircraft systems. Last week, California Sen. Barbara Boxer introduced the “Safe Drone Act” (S.2157) to address the growing problem of drones jeopardizing public safety by flying too close to wildfires and airports.
While Brown was reluctant to create new laws, the federal government is taking action. The task force will be composed of 25 to 30 diverse representatives from the UAS and manned aviation industries, the federal government and other stakeholders.
“The signal we’re sending is when you enter national air space, it is a very serious matter,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said when making the announcement. “It’s not like riding your ATV on your own property. It’s actually going into space where other users are also occupying that space. It’s a matter of responsibility that we will take seriously and there are penalties that are associated with failing to do so.”
The group will advise the Department on which aircraft should be exempt from registration due to a low safety risk, including toys and certain other small UAS. The task force also will explore options for a streamlined system that would make registration less burdensome for commercial UAS operators.
“The Task force should complete its recommendations by the middle part of November,” he stated. “Our goal is having some rules in place by the middle part of December.”
“Registering unmanned aircraft will help build a culture of accountability and responsibility, especially with new users who have no experience operating in the U.S. aviation system,” Foxx said. “It will help protect public safety in the air and on the ground.”
DOT and FAA are contemplating a national register of owners and users of drones. “It’s the ability to connect back to the person who was using the drone,” Foxx stated. While all owners will be required to register, Foxx said there may be a retroactive provision or grace period for existing owners.
According to the department’s press release, the Federal Aviation Administration receives daily reports of potentially unsafe drone operations. Pilot sightings of UAS doubled between 2014 and 2015. The reports ranged from incidents at major sporting events and flights near manned aircraft to interference with wildfire operations.
“These reports signal a troubling trend,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said. “Registration will help make sure that operators know the rules and remain accountable to the public for flying their unmanned aircraft responsibly. When they don’t fly safely, they’ll know there will be consequences.”
Boxer’s bill would make it a misdemeanor offense for an individual to knowingly operate a drone within two miles of a fire, an airport or other restricted airspace. Congressman John Garamendi (D-CA) recently introduced the House version of the bill — H.R. 3669.
“Our firefighters and airplane pilots should be focused on keeping the public safe — not worrying about unauthorized drones that recklessly interfere with their jobs,” Sen. Boxer said in a press release.
The bill follows a series of recent incidents where reckless drone operators have forced firefighting agencies to suspend all air operations out of concern for the safety of the pilots and people on the ground. This year in California, there have been five cases where drones have hindered firefighting efforts.
The bill would allow federal, state, or local agencies and firefighters to use drones in restricted airspace for legitimate purposes, such as surveying the size of a fire.
The FAA strongly encourages Individuals flying for hobby or recreation to follow safety guidelines. Among the guidelines, is the recommendation to fly below 400 feet, remain clear of surrounding obstacles and remain well clear of and do not interfere with manned aircraft operations.
Currently these operators can be fined for endangering people or other aircraft.
Joining Secretary Foxx and Huerta at the press conference were representatives from stakeholder groups, including the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International and the Academy of Model Aircraft.