Fly Your Drone Near an Airport, and the FAA May Hijack It

Two quadcopters in a clear sky.

New technology from CACI can wrest control of civilian UAVs, lawmaker says.

The Fed­er­al Avi­ation Ad­min­is­tra­tion is test­ing mil­it­ary-grade tech­no­logy to keep com­mer­cial and per­son­al drones in the U.S. from get­ting near air­ports and oth­er sens­it­ive air­space.

The FAA is team­ing up with CACI In­ter­na­tion­al — a fed­er­al IT, in­tel­li­gence, and mil­it­ary con­tract­or — to test “tech­no­logy that iden­ti­fies un­manned air­craft near air­ports,” the agency’s deputy ad­min­is­trat­or, Mi­chael Whi­taker, an­nounced at a Wed­nes­day con­gres­sion­al hear­ing.

Law­makers on the House Trans­port­a­tion Com­mit­tee’s Avi­ation Sub­com­mit­tee ex­pressed alarm at the rap­idly rising num­bers of drone sight­ings by com­mer­cial pi­lots, and called on the FAA to take ac­tion to pre­vent a po­ten­tially cata­stroph­ic col­li­sion between a drone and an air­liner.

Whi­taker said his agency gets about 100 re­ports a month of drone sight­ings near air­planes and air­ports.

The FAA’s part­ner­ship with CACI is the latest in a series of es­cal­at­ing moves to try to keep drones from ac­cess­ing re­stric­ted air­space. The FAA’s least in­trus­ive strategy is an edu­ca­tion cam­paign: Through pro­grams called “Know Be­fore You Fly” and “No-Drone Zones,” the agency is try­ing to raise aware­ness about where hob­by­ists and com­mer­cial drone op­er­at­ors are not al­lowed to go.

Some mem­bers of Con­gress have pushed the FAA to go fur­ther in re­strict­ing ac­cess to cer­tain air­space, ask­ing the agency to cre­ate man­dat­ory geofences that would pre­vent drones from be­ing flown where they shouldn’t be. Sen. Chuck Schu­mer in­tends to in­tro­duce le­gis­la­tion to set up vir­tu­al fences around sens­it­ive areas. Soft­ware baked in­to drones would keep them from en­ter­ing the fenced-off areas. But Schu­mer’s plan, which is backed by Rep. Adam Schiff in the House, is far from fool­proof, be­cause geofen­cing soft­ware in drones is eas­ily mod­i­fied and dis­abled by a savvy user.

The CACI tech­no­logy that the FAA is now test­ing has dif­fer­ent cap­ab­il­it­ies, and, by one ac­count, goes even fur­ther than geofen­cing in its in­vas­ive­ness.

The CACI tech­no­logy can “pass­ively de­tect, identi­fy, and track UAS — or aer­i­al drones — and their ground-based op­er­at­ors,” said John Men­gucci, COO and pres­id­ent of U.S. op­er­a­tions for CACI, in a state­ment.

The tech­no­logy would be a valu­able tool to the agency, one of whose “biggest chal­lenges,” Whi­taker said, is loc­at­ing op­er­at­ors who are fly­ing drones where they should not be.

Ac­cord­ing to Rep. Peter De­Fazio, however, the tech­no­logy is able to do more than just de­tect and track drones. “It’s been used in mil­it­ary ap­plic­a­tions. As they ex­plained it to me, they can pin­point the op­er­at­or — that’s good. They can do nu­mer­ous things: They can force the drone to land, they can force it to go back to the op­er­at­or, or, in the case of hos­tiles, they de­liv­er something to the op­er­at­or,” De­Fazio said at the Wed­nes­day hear­ing.

De­Fazio went on to de­scribe a scen­ario that he said the tech­no­logy would en­able. “You wouldn’t want to ne­ces­sar­ily dis­able them and have them drop out of the sky, but they can also dir­ect them to an­oth­er place, and if we had des­ig­nated safe sites around air­ports or crit­ic­al air­space and we used this tech­no­logy, we could dir­ect the drones there and say, ‘Oh, come get your drone, we’ll be wait­ing,’” the Ore­gon Demo­crat said.

A CACI rep­res­ent­at­ive did not re­spond to mul­tiple re­quests for com­ment.

Law­makers on the House pan­el pressed Whi­taker for oth­er ways to make an in­creas­ingly crowded na­tion­al air­space safer.

The FAA’s rules for small com­mer­cial air­craft, which were due last month, have still not been fi­nal­ized. Whi­taker said his best es­tim­ate for when the rule will be com­plete is June 17, 2016.

“I’m dis­ap­poin­ted,” said Rep. John Mica, who pressed Whi­taker on the tim­ing of the fi­nal rule. If guid­ance is not is­sued soon, Mica pre­dicted, there will be a “very ser­i­ous ac­ci­dent.”

“There are just so many of these now fly­ing that it’s al­most in­ev­it­able that we have a drone hit an air­craft, and there will be prob­ably in­jur­ies and hope­fully not fatal­it­ies,” he said.

In the mean­time, De­Fazio and Rep. Rick Larsen, a Demo­crat from Wash­ing­ton, re­com­men­ded the agency cre­ate a re­gistry for drone op­er­at­ors.

Whi­taker said his agency is con­sid­er­ing keep­ing such a data­base, but he warned that the volume of data might be too much for his agency.

To il­lus­trate the ne­ces­sity of re­gis­ter­ing drones, Larsen reached for an ex­ample from his home state’s prom­in­ent crab­bing in­dustry. “You’ve got to put your name and ad­dress and con­tact info on your crab pot buoy, in case it gets loose or in case someone steals it,” Larsen said. “But you have to do this be­cause you need to be held ac­count­able, and so it’s the same kind of deal.”

“You could have drones mon­it­or the crab pots,” offered Sub­com­mit­tee Chair­man Frank Lo­Bi­ondo.

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