In light of several unauthorized drones spotted nearby New York area airports, U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer today pledged to propose an amendment as part of the FAA Reauthorization Bill this fall that would require manufacturers to implement geo-fencing technology or other similar solutions on all drones in order to prevent them from flying in to “No Fly Zones,” like airports. Geo-fencing or other similar technology, which Schumer has long-advocated for, limits where drones can fly through the installation of built-in software, firmware and GPS tracking in the device and helps take human error out of the equation. Manufacturers are already experimenting with placing this type of technology in their drones, however, Schumer said that all manufacturers should be required to implement the software right away and that’s why he will be proposing this amendment. Schumer pointed to at least seven reported drone sightings by pilots at both JFK and Newark airports—in just the past week or so—where drones were at an altitude of 2,000-3,000 feet. In addition, the FAA recently reported pilot sightings of unmanned aircrafts have increased over the past year from a total of 238 in 2014 to more than 650 by August 9th 2015. Schumer said that these drone sightings are extremely troubling because a collision could put hundreds of airplane passengers and pilots in real danger.
In February, the FAA released its draft rule on drones, however, Schumer said that it does not go far enough because it does not require the use of geo-fencing technology to limit where a drone can fly. Schumer said he would propose his amendment as part of the soon-to-pass Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization that must move through Congress this fall. Schumer explained that he had hoped a geo-fencing requirement would be included in the reauthorization bill but with recent reports that congress will simply extend current FAA policy through at least 2016, an amendment to that extension could be the only way to implement such a requirement this year. If language like Schumer is proposing is not included in the upcoming bill, legislative action on geo-technology could be stalled until at least 2016. Schumer said that this issue is far too important to wait and Congress should act now regardless of whether or not they do a full FAA reauthorization or just an extension of current policy.
“Near-misses between drones and passenger airliners are spiking and we must act now, before a real tragedy occurs. That’s why I will be proposing an amendment to the expected FAA bill that will move through congress this year to require manufacturers to implement geo-fencing or other similar ‘no fly zone’ technology on all drones. This technology works and will effectively ‘fence off’ drones from sensitive areas like airports. When it comes to drones in the vicinity of commercial flights carrying hundreds of passengers at a time, the FAA has been playing whack-a-mole across the skies, and that’s certainly not good enough,” said Schumer.
Schumer explained that originally congress had planned to pass a full FAA reauthorization this fall that would have created the opportunity to address a number of pressing safety issues including the use of drone technology. However, recently Republican leadership has indicated that rather than pass a full reauthorization, they will instead pursue a short-term extension of FAA policy, likely into 2016. Schumer said that requiring geo-fencing or other similar technology is simply too important to wait until 2016, and so he will be proposing an amendment to the planned short-term FAA extension that must pass this fall in order to ensure this important issue is addressed right away.
Drones are unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) that fall under three categories denoted by the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA): civil, public and model aircraft. The public unmanned aircraft systems are used by government agencies, law enforcement agencies and research institutions to aid in their operations. Schumer said that drones are an incredibly important technology, and are helpful in collecting data, aiding with border patrol operations, agriculture, training the military and more. The civil unmanned aircraft systems and the model aircraft systems provide opportunities for civilians to use drones recreationally, and for drones to be used for research and development. Schumer supports the use of drones under all of these categories, but said that there must be clear limits to their usage when privacy and safety are threatened. Schumer noted that drones have commercial applications that make them useful in terms of agricultural development, real estate sales and search and rescue missions. Specifically, drones can help farmers monitor their crops more effectively and may help realtors sell real estate by providing better photographs of for-sale properties. Drones can also aid in search and rescue missions by locating missing individuals. Schumer said that there are innumerable benefits to drone technology, however, there are also consequences to the lack of regulation.
The FAA is charged with developing general, binding rules for integrating drones into the national airspace. In light of a number of near-misses at New York City airports as well as numerous privacy concerns over the years,Schumer has long been an advocate for clearer guidelines on drone use. Since the FAA Modernization and Reform Act was passed in 2012 and established “a special rule for model aircraft,” Schumer has urged the FAA to release its proposed rule, which would distinguish between hobby and commercial drones, and outline the legal and illegal uses of commercial drones. On February 15th, the FAA released its draft rule on drones; Schumer said this was a good first step towards airspace safety, however, the final rules should include three key changes: fix the flawed ‘line of sight’ rule, require manufacturers to use GPS geo-fencing technology and develop stringent privacy protections.
As of July 31st, there have been nearly ten reported near-misses involving drones and airplanes in the New York metro area. Three of these events occurred at John F. Kennedy Airport, four of these events occurred at Newark airport and all involved passenger jets carrying hundreds of people. On July 31st alone there were two incidents in which a drone came within a few hundred feet of an approaching plane. The first incident was at 2:25pmand involved JetBlue Flight 1834, which was carrying 150 passengers at the time; the crew witnessed a drone pass directly beneath the plane as it approached the runway. The second incident occurred later that day at approximately 5pm when Delta flight 407, which was carrying 149 passengers, also witnessed a drone pass beneath it. The most recent incident occurred on August 2nd at 6pm when Shuttle America flight 5911, which was carrying 50 passengers, reported seeing a quadcopter drone fly within 25 front of its nose immediately before landing on the runway. On Sunday August 9th, four commercial airplanes reported seeing a drone flying near the approach path of a runway at Newark airport; each plane was landing and at altitudes of 2,000-3,000 feet. Schumer said that the damage of a drone colliding with an airplane could cause damage similar to that of a bird strike, which has the possibility in bringing a plane down. This is not the only instance of improper drone usage around the country.
The FAA has said that pilot reports of drone sightings have increased over the past year. According to the FAA, pilots reported spotting 16 drones in June of 2014 and 36 drones in July 2014. So far this year, 138 pilots reported seeing drones in June and 137 pilots reported seeing drones in July.
In July, in the midst of two wildfires near San Diego, a drone interfered with the San Diego Fire Department’s response. Because of the presence of a drone above these two wildfires, the San Diego Fire Department had to delay its “aerial attack,” in which helicopters and aircrafts drop water and fire retardant onto the wildfire. Following this incident, the California State Legislature is considering new legislation which would penalize people who fly drones near fires.
Furthermore, drones may also be used for illegal purposes. For example, a drone in Ohio recently dropped a package of drugs into the prison yard at Mansfield Correctional Institution. This package contained drugs which included 7 grams of heroin, 57 grams of marijuana, and 140 grams of tobacco. Once the package was dropped to the intended inmate, a fight immediately broke-out. The prison guards used pepper spray to break-up the fight and some inmates were sent to solitary as punishment. Schumer made the point that this instance suggests that drones can be used for malicious purposes, like transporting weapons or other contraband.