The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) next spring plans to issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) related to remote identification of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) operating around airports and the national airspace to help law enforcement and other authorities rapidly identify potentially wayward drones and their operators, an agency official said on Tuesday.

The “intent” of the rulemaking is for the data obtained through remote identification of a UAS and its operator to be available to federal, state, local, tribal and territorial law enforcement, Angela Stubblefield, deputy associate administrator in FAA’s Office of Security & Hazardous Materials Safety, said at an aviation security conference hosted by the American Association of Airport Executives.

Battelle's counter-UAS DroneDefender being operated by a U.S. soldier. Photo: Battelle
Battelle’s counter-UAS DroneDefender being operated by a U.S. soldier. Photo: Battelle

The identity information gathered by remote ID technology would be available to smartphones that “vetted” authorities carry for their routine use, Stubblefield said. Last summer FAA began to gather the law enforcement community’s requirements for the remote ID of UAS, she said.

“We’re looking to create a remote identification requirement that will get you the data you need as well as the data that UAS to UAS need to ensure it can keep aircraft from running into each other as well,” Stubblefield said.

A typical rulemaking process, including adjudication of comments obtained after the NPRM is released before a final rule is issued is about 12 to 16 months, she said.

Without remote identification, authorities may not be able to locate and identify the operator of a drone even though they’ve spotted the aircraft, Stubblefield said. The remote identification capability will locate where the operator is so that authorities can intervene to get the UAS out of the airspace, she said.

Congress recently approved legislation allowing the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice to detect, monitor, identify and mitigate threats posed by drones to certain critical infrastructures in the U.S. That’s the first time DHS and the DoJ have been given authority to defeat potential drone threats.

The legislation was wrapped into a larger FAA bill that also gives that agency authorities to do more testing to detect drones and to mitigate drone threats by developing standards for this in the national airspace. The DHS Science and Technology Office is developing plans for a counter-UAS testing program beginning in 2019.

The FAA Reauthorization Bill also gives the agency the authority to require UAS to have remote identification built in by the manufacturers, she said. Once the NPRM is released, drone manufacturers will have an understanding of the agency’s requirements and then build the remote identification capabilities into their products, she added.

Stubblefield said that FAA will be working with DHS on its plans. She said that the FAA is still sorting out its own plans for testing detection and mitigation capabilities around airports. Everyone will leverage each other’s research and testing activities, she said.

Currently when drones are reported to be operating around airports, aircraft are typically put into a holding pattern or pilots are directed to go around where the UAS is operating, Stubblefield said, holding this operating procedure as an example of mitigation techniques. Even with the development of counter UAS system technologies, the default countermeasure at an airport will likely still be to keep away from the drone because of potential impacts of the technologies on the airport environment.

If the countermeasure system is based on electronics to jam the use of the UAS, the FAA won’t want to risk the potential jamming of GPS signals that a commercial plane is using during a precision navigation approach to an airport, she said. As the counter UAS technologies are tested, the FAA is going to be “cautious” about the operational and spectrum impacts, she said.

“We don’t want the medicine to be worse than the disease,” Stubblefield said.

She also said that detection needs to be as “precise” and “targeted” as possible to minimize “spillover impacts” of counter drone efforts.

Previous testing by the FAA of technologies to detect and monitor small UAS operating near airports have shown “challenges” related to “interference,” Stubblefield said, noting that local geography factors into the effectiveness of the detection systems.

In addition to DHS and DoJ, Congress in fiscal year 2017 gave the Departments of Defense and Energy limited authorities to counter UAS near their critical infrastructures in the U.S.

The impetus for the counter drone bills is concern about the use of small UAS to smuggle drugs and contraband, as potential kinetic threats against people and infrastructure, and for nefarious surveillance and intelligence gathering domestically.