Two quadcopters in a clear sky.

Two quadcopters in a clear sky. Image via Flickr user Kevin Baird

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

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.