U.S. lawmakers are considering steps to reverse a disturbing rise in illegal drone flights, including new government enforcement tools to crack down on rogue flyers, especially near airports, according to people familiar with the matter.
Discussions in the House of Representatives and Senate gained new urgency this week, amid heightened fears of a looming air disaster, after the Federal Aviation Administration reported a spike in drone sightings near crewed aircraft, including commercial airliners.
Legislative proposals could be two weeks away. But sources said options include measures to support new technology to track and disable rogue drones, compel operators to undergo training or register their unmanned aircraft before flying, and require drones to have transponders or other features that would allow authorities to identify unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, in flight.
“There’s a definite feeling that we need to do something,” said one source involved in the discussions.
U.S. pilots have reported more than 650 drone sightings so far this year, as of Aug. 9, compared with 238 total for all of 2014, the FAA said this week. If sightings continue at that rate, the number would near 1,100 by the end of the year.
Lawmakers and safety advocates say it may be only a matter of time before a drone collides with a commercial aircraft during delicate landing or takeoff maneuvers, with potentially catastrophic consequences.
The safety risks have worsened as drone sales have soared. Some 700,000 unmanned aerial vehicles are expected to be sold in the United States this year, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. That is up from 120,000 in 2013 and 430,000 in 2014. At the same time, the average wholesale price of drones is expected to drop to $142 in 2016, down 40 percent from $349 in 2013.
Jail Time For Rogues?
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta welcomed news of the discussions in Congress and told Reuters that authorities are ready to prosecute rogue operators. That could mean stiff fines and prison sentences for those who violate federal rules that require drones to fly no higher than 400 feet (120 meters) and fly no closer than 5 miles (8 km) from airports.
Another congressional option would create an initiative to help local communities prosecute unsafe and intrusive drone behavior under state laws.
New congressional requirements to help identify the operators of errant drones would mark a major shift from current regulations that law enforcement officials describe as ineffective.
Federal aviation regulators currently have limited authority to act because Congress in 2012 said the FAA could not require members of the public to register their drones, obtain training, or fly aircraft with identifying features.
That has left the agency to rely largely on a voluntary educational program or depend on local law enforcement to track down operators.
“It would be great to be able to track them back to their owners. But, lacking compliance with some sort of registration process, it’s very difficult,” said Daniel Schwarzbach, a Houston police officer who heads the Airborne Law Enforcement Association.
The FAA has opened more than 20 enforcement actions against drone operators – 2 percent of the unauthorized drone sightings reported since 2013.
A Reuters analysis of FAA data shows that authorities identified operators in only one in 10 unauthorized drone sightings reported last year, while operators were arrested, detained or cited in only 3 percent.
Congressional aides said lawmakers should be ready to consider legislation when they return to Capitol Hill in September from their summer break. But some lawmakers said they also need to hear from the FAA.
“They can come to us, and we can give them additional authority. But they haven’t asked for it,” said Representative John Mica, a Florida Republican who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s transportation panel.
Any such steps may have to take a back seat to Republican efforts to privatize the U.S. air traffic control system, a complex and politically sensitive legislative task that could take up to a year, according to congressional aides. Both the air traffic control measure and any drone legislation would be part of a long-term FAA authorization bill. (Reporting by David Morgan, Editing by Soyoung Kim)