The unlawful use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) near airports and other critical infrastructure remains a growing problem, underscoring the need to continue developing drone-detection technology, the head of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said Jan. 6.

In 2016, pilots of manned aircraft filed about 1,800 “drone-sighting reports,” up from 1,200 in 2015, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a speech at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Flying drones near manned aircraft and airports is illegal.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. Photo: FAA
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. Photo: FAA

The FAA has tested drone-detection systems at airports in Denver, New York City and Atlantic City, N.J., and plans to conduct more research at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport later this year.

“We’re using the data and findings from these evaluations to draft recommendations for standards,” Huerta said. “And these standards will help inform airport operators nationwide who are considering installing drone-detection systems.”

UAS continue to proliferate among the American public. More than 670,000 people have registered their small drones since the FAA launched a registration website for recreational users a little over a year ago. Of that total, 37,000 signed up in the last two weeks of December, suggesting a holiday-related surge. Drone sales in the United States could reach 7 million drones by 2020, Huerta said.

The robust growth is not limited to hobbyists. Since a rule for commercial users of small UAS went into effect in August, 16,000 people have taken the remote pilot knowledge exam, and almost 90 percent have passed.

The FAA continues to work on several other drone initiatives. It is developing a proposed rule for operating small UAS over people, an effort that has proven challenging and is “taking time,” Huerta said.

“Allowing unmanned aircraft to fly over people raises safety questions because of the risk of injury to those underneath in the event of a failure,” he said. “It also raises security issues. As drone flights over people become more and more commonplace, imagine the challenge of a local police officer who is trying to determine which drones are properly there to photograph the festivities – and which might be being operated by individuals with more nefarious purposes.”

The FAA is also working with NASA to develop a concept for an unmanned air traffic management system. In addition, the FAA’s drone advisory committee, chaired by Intel’s [INTC] chief executive officer, is scheduled to hold its second meeting in Reno, Nev., later this month. And the agency’s second annual drone symposium is slated for March in the Washington, D.C., area.