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The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced Monday that it is creating a task force to determine how to better regulate unmanned aircraft commonly known as drones that are flown by hobbyists.
The FAA announcement came five days after the Los Angeles City Council approved citywide regulations for drones requiring they be flown at least five miles away from airports, that operators do not fly them farther than they can be seen, and that operators do not fly them at night. The drones are also restricted from being flown more than 400 feet in elevation, and operators are prohibited from interfering with any manned aircraft. Violations could result in fines and misdemeanor charges.
The FAA indicated preliminarily that it intends to create a system that would require hobbyist drone operators to register with the FAA when an unmanned aircraft is purchased. Commercial drone operators are already required to register with the FAA.
The task force will include federal authorities, as well as representatives of the unmanned aviation industry and other stakeholders. Federal authorities said they are attempting to regulate drones used by hobbyists because they pose a significant potential danger to aircraft.
“Registering unmanned aircraft will help build a culture of accountability and responsibility, especially with new users who have no experience operating in the U.S. aviation system,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said. “It will help protect public safety in the air and on the ground.”
The FAA receives reports of potentially unsafe drone incidents on a daily basis, and pilot sightings of drones doubled between 2014 and 2015. Unmanned aircraft have interfered with law enforcement and civilian aircraft, and have forced firefighting aircraft to divert from operations over brush fires in San Bernardino County and other areas of California. In August, a drone operator allegedly flew an unmanned aircraft that interfered with a police helicopter circling over a crime scene in Hollywood.
Some commercial drone operators who work with film production companies in Hollywood said rules preventing drones from interfering with manned aircraft are necessary.
“If you’re flying recklessly, and I would consider flying near a police aircraft reckless, the pilot should absolutely, 110 percent be held accountable. It should, in fact, be an arrestable offense,” said Mike Fortin, owner of CineDrones, which has offices in West Hollywood and downtown Los Angeles and is registered with the FAA. “If firefighting operations are going on and you are somewhere in their flight path, I absolutely believe that should be a violation.”
However, Fortin questioned how easily the FAA and law enforcement will be able to identify and prosecute hobbyists who break the rules because it can be extremely difficult to determine who is flying a drone.
“The problem is if you’re in a jet, or even a regular airplane flying at 105 miles per hour, and you see a drone the size of a shoebox, it’s going to be like reading a serial number off a dollar bill,” Fortin said. “I do believe there should be registration numbers for commercial operators, but in terms of hobbyists, it’s a little less clear.”
Blake Asbury, co-founder of L.A. Drones, which is based in Venice, added that registration will be beneficial, but further steps need to be taken.
“I think it boils down to education,” Asbury said. “Like anything else, there is a learning curve. There are people out there who are doing it maliciously and hurting the entire industry. A lot of people are unaware they are causing a problem. It’s time to start focusing on education on how to fly these things. Otherwise, it’s like putting a band-aid on a bullet hole.”
Congressman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) has called for more FAA regulations regarding drones. He supports a registration system for hobbyist drone operators, but also called for better technology in drones to protect public safety.
“I am glad to see that the FAA is taking action to address the growing risks posed by those using drones irresponsibly. But registration alone will not resolve the underlying issue of drones entering restricted airspace, such as airports or the areas above wildfires,” Schiff said. “Given the increased prevalence of commercial drones, we must continue to educate the public on using drones responsibly while evaluating all technological measures to detect drones in restricted airspace, prevent them from causing damage and locate the individuals piloting them.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who has introduced the Consumer Drone Safety Act with co-author Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), is calling for new safety features and anti-tampering technology to be installed in drones. The senators want geo-fencing technology to be installed in drones that would regulate altitude, as well as collision-avoidance software. The legislation will likely be included in a package of bills pertaining to the FAA that Congress will consider before March. On Wednesday, Feinstein presented FAA data showing nearly 900 incidents of reckless drone operation was reported nationwide from April 1, 2014 to Aug. 20, 2015.
“It’s clear that reckless consumer drone use is increasing. With the number of consumer drones projected to top one million this year, the problem will only grow,” Feinstein said. “The data released by the FAA indicate that 75 percent of incidents involved a drone that climbed to a dangerously high altitude. The Consumer Drone Safety Act would address that problem by requiring safety information be distributed to consumers and technological safeguards be installed in the devices. I am hopeful that when Congress reauthorizes the FAA in March, the basic safeguards from our bill will be included to help prevent a tragic accident.”
Los Angeles City Councilman Mitchell Englander, 12 District, who co-authored the motion approved by the city council last week, said the FAA is moving in the right direction.
“The new drone regulations in the city of Los Angeles require compliance with all FAA rules and regulations, both currently existing and enacted in the future,” added Englander, who is chair of the council’s public safety committee. “As drones become increasingly popular, with literally tens of thousands sold each month, it is critically important to ensure this technology is operated responsibly and does not jeopardize the safety of manned aircraft.”
The FAA is also working on education for drone operators. The agency has launched the “Know Before You Fly” campaign and “No Drone Zone” initiatives to alert drone operators about safety rules. The task force was asked to return by Nov. 20 with recommendations for the FAA on implementing the new registration system for hobbyists.
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