Mystery Drones and the FAA’s proposed identification rule
for The Fence Post
First spotted nearly two weeks ago in northeastern Colorado, the mysterious nocturnal drone flights have dominated social media feeds and scanner chatter. Facebook groups have popped up, dedicated to tracking the drones, gathering information and solving the mystery.
Sheriff’s offices around the area have fielded hundreds of calls and the theories about the drones have abounded without an operator coming forward to hush the rumors.
Yuma County Sheriff Todd Combs released a statement expressing his frustration with the lack of answers. Combs said area law enforcement will meet with federal government agencies, including an investigator from the Federal Aviation Administration on Jan. 6.
Combs said the drones are flying in uncontrolled or Class G airspace and appear to be operating within the guidelines set forth. He said drone technology is far outpacing rule making.
That technology is one of the qualities that companies like Nebraska-based UAV Recon uses on a daily basis. UAV Recon utilizes Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), also called Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), or drones, to provide aerial inspection for utility companies. Dusty Birge, president of UAV Recon, said they work cooperatively with utility companies to ensure residents are aware of their purpose and projects.
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“Our top clients are electric utilities and in Nebraska, there are more public power districts than any other state so clients of the districts have a powerful say in the projects they do because those projects are reflected in their electricity bill,” Birge said. “For me, it’s a good business decision to be proactive so people are OK with our operations and want those utilities to hire us and we’re able to hire more people.”
For Birge, when working on behalf of electric utilities, the right of way easement allows him access to inspect poles and lines, just as a ground crew would, though by air. It also allows inspections to occur quickly, efficiently, and without having to physically access a property through a closed gate, for instance.
However, airspace and property rights aren’t one in the same. Airspace, he said, isn’t under city, county or state jurisdiction. Airspace is managed by the FAA, making any crimes committed in the airspace federally prosecuted. This also complicates the enforcement of local bans on UAVs.
“Spying, or other crimes, is bad altogether, whether you’re doing it from a drone or with a ladder and binoculars,” he said. “It’s all bad it’s just in the other cases, it would be prosecuted at the state or county level where a drone incident would be prosecuted at the federal level. It’s even more reason for a drone company to want to avoid breaking the law.”
Just as commercial airlines don’t have to contact each owner of the properties their flights fly over, based on the FAA guidelines, neither do UAVs. There are exceptions, including the controlled airspace around airports and military bases.
The FAA must grant a waiver to UAV operators to fly either out of their line of sight or at night and more than 3,500 of these four-year waivers are currently in effect.
Whether it is a result of the mysterious drones or a coincidence, the FAA released a proposed rule requiring UAV operators to implement a Remote Identification System, or Remote ID. In the case of conventional aircraft, air traffic controllers in towers are equipped with technology to determine the information about who is flying the aircraft nearby through a database of the tail numbers, much the same way as a license plate. There is currently technology that exists that can track drones but it is limited to determining the location of the drone and the location of the signal controlling it. Remote ID would allow commercial drone operators to log their UAVs so ownership could be determined through the database. It would be driven and mandated by the FAA and whether to allow other entities, like local law enforcement, access would be at the FAA’s discretion.
The proposed rule, he said, is opposed by many in the hobbyist community who believe it to be an invasion of their privacy to register or pay a per flight fee. Commercial operators by in large, he said, aren’t opposed. Currently, commercial operators must purchase a registration which is available for $5 and is valid for three years. Hobbyists are not required to register but under the proposed rule, manufacturers could be required to equip drones with the technology.
Birge, who has seen the mystery drones in Nebraska, said it’s difficult to determine altitude and size of the UAVs being reported. Using thermal equipment and binoculars, he estimates the drones to be fixed-wing aircraft, nearly the size of small manned aircraft. That being said, he is speaking only to the small number of drones he personally saw. Even so, they appear to be larger than a hobbyist craft.
The theories about the drones’ purpose range from mapping to searching for lost military equipment, among others, and Birge said it isn’t a matter of whether a drone is capable of carrying out such purposes.
“A drone does none of that,” he said. “What a drone does is carry a payload, a payload being a camera, a thermal sensor, a gamma ray sensor. All of the sensors that a drone currently has the capability to carry have traditionally been carried on manned aircraft.”
The advantage of using a drone could be a reduction in risk, personnel or cost.
“The question is not whether the drone can do this but is there technology that could detect, for example, a nuclear warhead or could detect an underground bunker, or could detect a gas leak, or detect a forest fire and the question to all of those is yes. If it is a drone, it’s who has the platform and the bank roll to outfit a drone with those sensors,” Birge said.
More complex payloads often require larger drones with more propellers, more lift, more batteries, or an extended fuel cell that will allow it to fly for a longer period of time with a heavier payload. Fixed-wing and multi rotor drones have substantially different performance characteristics that affect how long a flight can be without changing batteries.
UAV Recon utilizes drones much of the time to inspect and analyze real-time data so the drone is controlled by an operator nearby. However, a project of much larger size and scope, like a large-scale mapping project like Google Earth, can collect data autonomously.
The beyond the line of sight waiver does not dictate that drones take off and land from the same place but the infrastructure would have to be in place for the drone to land at the endpoint of the mission and have the battery replaced before flying again. The military, for example, can fly done missions in combat areas overseas using drones controlled stateside.
As for spying, he said, thermal cameras are unable to sense heat through solid surfaces like glass or walls, making individual personal surveillance an unlikely mission.
The Colorado Cattlemen’s Association issued a statement expressing their concern for livestock owners in the areas where the drones are being reported and urged motorists to be aware of livestock that may be spooked by the flights and traveling to roadways as well as the producers who may be out checking livestock.
U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., also released a statement about the drones and his commitment to learning the source and purpose of the flights. In his statement, he said he’s encouraged that the FAA has opened a full investigation and he will continue to monitor the situation as well. Gardner supported Remote ID requirements in the FAA Extension, Safety, and Security Act of 2016, which prompted this rule proposal.
The comment period on the proposed rule is now open. Comments may be left on the docket through the Federal eRulemaking Portal: Go to http://www.regulations.gov and follow the online instructions for sending your comments electronically. The docket number for this NPRM is FAA-2019-1100. Mail: Send comments to Docket Operations, M-30; U.S. Department of Transportation, 1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE, Room W12-140, West Building Ground Floor, Washington, DC 20590-0001.
Hand Delivery or Courier: Take comments to Docket Operations in Room W12-140 of the West Building Ground Floor at 1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE, Washington, DC, between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, except federal holidays.
Fax: Fax comments to Docket Operations at (202) 493-2251. ❖
— Gabel is an assistant editor and reporter for The Fence Post. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (970) 392-4410.
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