House Subcommittee Roundtable Agrees on Expanding FAA’s Authority to Regulate Drones

July 12, 2018

There was widespread agreement on the need to reform laws governing how the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) can regulate unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) at a roundtable hosted by the House Subcommittee on Aviation on Wednesday.

The roundtable, which focused on counter-UAS strategies, featured a panel of public and private sector stakeholders including:

  • Ms. Angela Stubblefield, Deputy Associate Administrator for Security and Hazardous Materials Safety, Federal Aviation Administration
  • Mr. Steven Mucklow, Special Assistant to the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense Integration and Defense Support of Civil Authorities
  • Mr. David Silver, Vice President, Civil Aviation, Aerospace Industries Association (AIA)
  • Ms. Lisa Ellman, Co-executive Director, Commercial Drone Alliance
  • Douglas Johnson, Vice President for Technology Policy, Consumer Technology Association

The discussion came at a time when the use of UAS, for both commercial and recreational purposes, is growing rapidly. FAA estimates that the number of commercial UAS could grow from 110,604 in 2017 to over 700,000 in 2022. The number of “small” (under 55-pound) drones being used for recreational purposes could double in the same five years, from 1.1 million to over 2.4 million.

More drones means more errant drones—those flying into prohibited airspace or being used for nefarious purposes, from spying on neighbors to smuggling weapons and illicit drugs. Last year, the Department of Defense saw over 75 cases of UAS flying into prohibited airspace, and FAA receives 100 reports of errant drones per month, from pilots, other agencies, law enforcement, and the public.

That’s where counter-UAS comes in. Under section 1692 of  the Fiscal 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, DOD and the Department of Energy can request the use of counter-UAS technologies around certain facilities, such as military installations, where the presence of UAS poses a security threat. (There are proposals to extend this authority to the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice, as well.) These technologies, which are mostly frequency based, range from radio frequency detection and jamming to spoofing, GPS jamming, casting nets and beaming lasers. The vast majority are based on military technology and have not been tested in civil environments.

While these technologies can certainly deter or ground an errant drone, they can also have effects on others in the airspace, including planes and lawful UAS. David Silver, Vice President of Civil Aviation at the Aerospace Industries Association, recounted a few instances of lost radio waves, lost autopilot at airports, and even a grocery store automatic door opening and shutting on its own.

It is for that reason that the federal agencies are careful only to implement counter-UAS when necessary, and where it will not endanger the safety of those acting lawfully. Steven Mucklow, Special Assistant to the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense of Homeland Defense Integration and Defense Support of Civil Authorities, said DOD and FAA work closely and on a site-specific basis to assess the effects counter-UAS could have on that airspace.

Angela Stubblefield, Deputy Associate Administrator for Security and Hazardous Materials Safety at FAA, outlined the many facets FAA works through with DOD and DOE when considering counter-UAS at a site, from examining the impacts on the airspace to the training of people on the ground and ensuring the appropriate flight restrictions are in place.

“Our approach has been to take a slow, judicious approach to using [counter-UAS] in that airspace,” she explained.

Playing by the Same Rules

One of the main issues—and one of the main sources of agreement among the panel—was Section 336 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, which prohibits FAA from issuing rules or regulations regarding certain model aircrafts (generally, those under 55 pounds that are flown for recreational/hobby use within the line of sight of the operator).

Deputy Associate Administrator Stubblefield said the provision “lends ambiguity and nuance that has led to noncompliance.” She said the exemption of model aircraft from FAA rules “represents an insurmountable challenge” to the agency and its partners in dealing with UAS that enter prohibited airspace, whether intentionally or not.

“The environment in which modelers are operating has changed,” she said. “We need authority for FAA to keep pace with the operational environment.”

Lisa Ellman, Co-executive Director of the Commercial Done Alliance, agreed on the need to reform Section 336, saying it would “enable FAA to implement basic rules of the road for all operators.”

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Ranking Member Peter DeFazio (D-OR) asked if there was anyone present who did not believe Section 336 should be modified so FAA can propose requirements on model aircraft; nobody raised their hand.

Friend or Foe?

Another source of agreement was on the need for remote identification of UAS. “Until we have remote identification,” Deputy Associate Administrator Stubblefield said, “right now every UAS that’s in a place that shouldn’t be looks to our security partners as a potential threat.”

But not every errant drone is a security threat, and remote ID can help law enforcement prioritize some misbehavior over others and thereby reduce the need to implement counter-UAS measures.

Several of the panelists referred to three buckets of errant drones: Careless, clueless, and criminal. The first two can be addressed through education and awareness, including targeted outreach to younger audiences, according to Douglas Johnson, Vice President for Technology Policy at the Consumer Technology Association. The criminals would be prioritized for counter-UAS.

Deputy Associate Administrator Stubblefield emphasized that identifying the “clueless and careless” versus those who have hostile intent is a main challenge—and one that remote ID could help solve.

Douglas Johnson, Vice President for Technology Policy at the Consumer Technology Association, agreed—and added that his association, which developed the industry standard for serial numbers for drones, is now working on a standard for remote identification.

“The mitigation of errant drones is complicated,” he said, “but the remote ID technologies and identification means are not. It should be perfectly legal for authorities to detect and decode signals.”

Mr. Silver also supported remote ID, as it could reduce the need to use counter-UAS measures that might have impacts on lawful aircraft. Ideally, that remote ID would give law enforcement the operator’s phone number “so I can tell him he’s in the wrong place, before I have to escalate.”

Watch a recording of the roundtable here.

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