FAA seeks to better regulate the use of drones

Concerned about rising reports of close calls and safety risks involving drones, the government announced Monday it will require many of the increasingly popular unmanned aircraft to be registered.

Pilot sightings of drones have doubled since last year, including near manned airplanes and at major sporting events, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said at a news conference, and there were numerous reports this summer in California of drones interfering with wildfire-fighting operations.

“These reports signal a troubling trend,” said Federal Aviation Administration chief Michel Huerta. Registration will increase pressure on drone operators to fly responsibly, he said, adding, “When they don’t fly safely, they’ll know there will be consequences.”

Drones have become increasingly popular among professionals, such as real estate agents and photographers, as well as amateurs and hobbyists who can get started for as little as a few hundred dollars. But even as drones gain in popularity, there remains widespread public confusion about what you can and can’t do with the devices. And many professional operators say they applaud the FAA’s moves to tighten up regulations.

“A lot of people are buying drones with zero experience, and they end up doing stupid things sometimes,” said Jose Morales, a San Jose photographer and videographer who has used drones in his work for several years. “We definitely need clearer regulation, but as professionals we don’t want everyone to be banned from using drones just because of a few stupid people.”

Morales said problems often arise when the operator doesn’t know how to properly control the drone and then crashes it into a sporting event or onto a busy roadway. “Guys get disoriented and can’t tell where their drone is,” he said, “or the battery runs out of power and the thing crashes.”

Regulating drones, say experts, is going to be tough given that many operators will simply ignore the rules and may not respect airspace in emergency situations.

More than a half-dozen incidents of drones entering firefighting airspace were noted this summer in California, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

In one incident, a drone flew over a grass fire in Auburn in Placer County, where Cal Fire crews were battling a blaze. Another came in late July on Interstate 15 when a drone caused the suspension of firefighting efforts — for 15 to 20 minutes — as flames swept over the freeway linking Southern California to Las Vegas, destroying 20 cars.

These and other incidents involving drones and firefighters prompted the introduction of two bills by Sacramento lawmakers, including one that would grant immunity to emergency responders who damage drones during fire or rescue operations. A second bill would increase fines and make jail time possible for drone use that interferes with firefighters, just as there are laws for those who shine lasers in the eyes of pilots.

The FAA said it now receives about 100 reports a month from pilots who say they’ve seen drones flying near planes and airports, compared with only a few sightings per month last year. So far, there have been no accidents, but agency officials have said they’re concerned that a drone weighing only a few pounds might cause serious damage if it gets sucked into an engine or smashes into an airliner’s windshield.

Toys and small drones that don’t present a safety threat are likely to be exempt from the requirement. Drones that weigh only a pound or two or that can’t fly higher than a few hundred feet are considered less risky, but heavier ones and those that can fly thousands of feet high pose more of a problem.

The FAA and the Transportation Department are setting up a task force, including government and industry officials, pilots and hobbyists, to deliver a report by Nov. 20. They’ll recommend which drones should be required to register, with new rules to be put in place as early as mid-December.

It’s hard to identify drones seen operating illegally near airports and planes or over crowds, and registration by itself won’t change that. But it would allow the FAA to identify drones when they can be recovered after landing or crashing, a common occurrence.

Danville real estate agent Jim Walberg with Pacific Union and Christie’s International Realty has used drones to market his properties for four years. And while he says the technology has proved to be a valuable tool in helping him sell listings, especially larger multiacre properties, the devices can pose a clear danger if used irresponsibly.

“We are all for more clarification of the rules,” said Walberg, “especially when we’re dealing with public-safety issues. At the moment, the rules are so darn vague that the FAA needs to come up with really clear regulations governing where and when and how people can use these things, because we’ll definitely be seeing more and more drones out there in the future.”

Earlier this year, drones operated illegally crashed on the White House lawn and at the New York stadium where the U.S. Open Tennis Championships were being held. In both cases, the drone operators came forward. But if they hadn’t, the government would have had no way to identify them.

There’s no official count of how many drones have been sold in the U.S., but industry officials say it is in the hundreds of thousands and will easily pass a million by the end of the year.

The Consumer Electronics Association predicts that 700,000 drones will be sold this holiday season, and Foxx said it’s especially important that new drone users be taught the responsibilities that come with flying.

Registering drones that could pose safety risks “makes sense, but it should not become a prohibitive burden for recreational users who fly for fun and educational purposes and who have operated harmoniously within our communities for decades,” Dave Mathewson, executive director of the Academy for Model Aeronautics, said in a statement.

Daniel Castro, vice president at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, urged the government not to “rush into new rules that could have unintended consequences down the line.”

Regulations devised by the task force “will have long-term implications for free speech, privacy and the commercial development and deployment of this nascent technology,” he said in a statement.

The Air Line Pilots Association and members of Congress have been calling for drone registration.

“This is a simple and necessary tactic to immediately identify the owner and drive home” the importance of safety rules, said Tim Canoll, president of the pilots union.

Said Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass.: “We have rules of the road, but in this brave new world, now we need rules of the sky.”

There is virtually no difference between model aircraft and the drones used by many commercial operators. Model aircraft also vary widely in size, weight and capability. Some are larger than the 55 pounds that the FAA uses to define small drones and can fly thousands of feet high.

The FAA signed an agreement last month with CACI International Inc., an information technology company in Arlington, Virginia, to test technology that could locate the operators of small drones that are flying illegally near airports. The technology would let the government track radio signals used to operate drones within a 5-mile radius and identify the operator’s location.

Staff writer Patrick May contributed to this story. follow him at Twitter.com/patmaymerc.