Unmanned Aircraft are definitely a transformative technology. They open up the lowest parts of the airspace to productive use. At the same time, they also create new problems for privacy and security. As a result, interest in “drone defense” technology has been skyrocketing. It seems that there is a new innovative defensive system unveiled by entrepreneurs on a weekly basis. A new letter form the Office of Airports Safety and Standards, however, indicates that the FAA would like to slow down and coordinate this new technological stampede.
Earlier this week, the FAA’s Office of Airports Safety and Standards sent an open letter to all airport sponsors officially clamping down on independent testing of defensive systems. The FAA notes in the letter that, while the Congress instructed the FAA to establish a pilot program to mitigate airspace hazards at airports and other critical infrastructure, that will be done through a Cooperative Research and Development program later this year and next year. According to the letter, some airports had begun to enter into individual agreements with system manufacturers for testing or pilot programs. The letter warns that they have no authority to enter into those agreements, and that if they do so, they could be “in violation of their grant assurances.”
The letter goes on to stress that there are still many issues that have to be worked out, not just at FAA, but across the entire alphabet soup of federal agencies. The FAA stressed that there are strong concerns that “electromagnetic and Radio Frequency (RF) interference” will affect safety of flight and air traffic management issues. In addition, the FAA warned that the technology still has a number of legal hurdles to overcome, including laws that “prohibit destruction or endangerment of aircraft and others that restrict or prohibit electronic surveillance, including the collection, recording or decoding of signaling information and the interception of electronic communications content.”
Anti-drone technology is still in the early stages. A cautions approach may be warranted until the competing technologies have demonstrated their safety and effectiveness. There is no reason, however, why the legal issues cannot and should not be worked out now. The last thing we need is to yet again reach a point where proven technologies have to sit on the shelf while the FCC, DHS, and others start their rulemaking processes. In addition, while Congress has demonstrated a desire to see this technology move forward, some of the biggest impediments are statutes that only Congress can modify. Hopefully our legislators will be able to give these issues the attention they deserve after the elections are finally over.
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