FAA drone pro­posal calls for new track­ing net­work

Draft rules af­fect toys, larger de­vices amid col­li­sion, terror threats

Orlando Sentinel - - BUSINESS - By Alan Levin

WASH­ING­TON — All but the small­est civil­ian drones would have to broad­cast ra­dio track­ing data to en­sure greater safety and pre­vent ter­ror­ism un­der a sweep­ing pro­posal un­veiled by U.S. reg­u­la­tors Thurs­day.

The long-awaited draft rules call for a mas­sive new track­ing net­work for ev­ery­thing from toys to larger com­mer­cial drones so that law en­force­ment can spot the de­vices fly­ing any­where, from con­gested ur­ban ar­eas to the most ru­ral zones.

The con­tro­ver­sial mea­sure by the Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion, which is sub­ject to pub­lic com­ment and could change be­fore it be­comes fi­nal, is a foun­da­tion to ad­vance drone-driven com­merce, in­clud­ing de­liv­er­ies of con­sumer goods by com­pa­nies such as Al­pha­bet Inc.’s Wing and Ama­zon.com Inc.’s Prime Air.

“This is an im­por­tant build­ing block in the un­manned traf­fic man­age­ment ecosys­tem,” the FAA said in the pro­posal.

With only lim­ited ex­cep­tions for groups such as model-air­plane op­er­a­tors, all drones weigh­ing more than 0.55 pounds would have to broad­cast their po­si­tion and op­er­a­tor’s iden­tity at all times un­der the FAA pro­posal.

The FAA is sug­gest­ing that pri­vate com­pa­nies ap­proved by the agency would set up track­ing sys­tems for drones, repli­cat­ing the ex­ist­ing air traf­fic con­trol sys­tem for tra­di­tional air­craft.

Law en­force­ment and home­land se­cu­rity agen­cies had de­manded a track­ing man­date in re­sponse to the grow­ing num­ber of drone threats, in­clud­ing a handful of close calls that halted air­line flights near air­ports, col­li­sions with other air­craft or use of the de­vices by ter­ror­ists around the world.

The is­sue has frac­tured the rapidly grow­ing base of drone op­er­a­tors, at times pit­ting recre­ational fliers and dif­fer­ent seg­ments of the in­dus­try against each other even as the ma­jor­ity of users ac­knowl­edge the need for some type of track­ing.

It also has raised con­cerns about govern­ment mon­i­tor­ing of the pub­lic.

Un­der the FAA pro­posal, if drone op­er­a­tors want to op­er­ate freely, they would have to both broad­cast their iden­tity on a ra­dio fre­quency that can be mon­i­tored nearby and si­mul­ta­ne­ously up­load the in­for­ma­tion via the in­ter­net.

In that way, other nearby drones and air­craft can steer clear and lo­cal po­lice equipped with track­ing de­vices could iden­tify rogue op­er­a­tors. At the same time, the de­vices could be mon­i­tored from a re­mote, cen­tral sys­tem.

Drone users can choose a more lim­ited op­tion of up­load­ing the in­for­ma­tion to the in­ter­net only, but they would be re­stricted to fly­ing within 400 feet of the op­er­a­tor.

The pro­posal wouldn’t take ef­fect for three years af­ter it’s fi­nal­ized, mean­ing rou­tine de­liv­ery flights and other com­mer­cial op­er­a­tions won’t be pos­si­ble un­til at least then. It typ­i­cally takes a year or more to fi­nal­ize a reg­u­la­tion.

Ex­ist­ing drones wouldn’t have to in­stall track­ing equip­ment retroac­tively, but would in most cases be banned from op­er­a­tion af­ter the rule be­comes law.

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