Commercial Drone Regulations: How Should Police Respond?
By Anthony Galante, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice, American Military University
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) continues to scramble to keep pace with the growing number of drones flying American skies. It is estimated that by 2035 there will be more than 1 million drones, both commercial and hobbyist, taking flight every day. To regulate the operation of drones, on August 29, the FAA released a new set of rules about how drones can be used for commercial purposes.
Summary of New Commercial Drone Rules
The Small Unmanned Aircraft Rule (Part 107) outlines commercial drone operational limitations, operator certification standards and responsibilities, and aircraft requirements. Specifically, the new rule states that a commercial drone, conducting non-hobbyist operations, must weigh less than 55 pounds. This provision is designed to minimize risks to other aircraft as well as people and property on the ground.
The regulations also require commercial drone operators to keep an unmanned aircraft within visual line of sight, which limits the use of drones for commercial purposes. Several commercial operators have applied for an exemption that would allow them to fly drones where they can’t be seen by the pilot. So far, only three companies have been given exemptions after participating in a year-long FAA pilot program. Commercial drone operations are only allowed during daylight – although, if a commercial drone is equipped with anti-collision lights, it can also operate during twilight hours.
The new regulations also address height and speed restrictions and other operational limits, such as prohibiting flights over people on the ground who aren’t directly participating in the drone operation.
While these regulations make it clearer how drones can be used for commercial purposes, law enforcement agencies continue to have outstanding concerns about how to enforce these, and other, FAA rules.
The Six Steps of Law Enforcement Response
The FAA has attempted to address enforcement concerns by issuing a law enforcement response document that outlines a six-step plan for how police should respond to a drone-related incident. These steps include:
- Witness identification and interviews
- Identification of operators
- Viewing and recording the location of the event
- Identifying sensitive locations, events, or activities
- Notification procedures
- Evidence collection
The intention is that these steps provide guidance for agencies to develop standard operating procedures (SOP) regarding drone response. A SOP should include the immediate actions officers need to take and whom they should notify when dealing with drones. Such response may include locating and contacting the drone operator and educating him or her about the safe operation of drones.
Officers could also report and forward information about the incident and the operator to the FAA and/or the National Transportation Safety Board. If the incident is deemed serious or potentially criminal in nature, officers may choose to take the operator into custody for further investigation. All of these steps should be outlined in an agency’s operating procedure.
One of the outstanding problems for police remains the issue of jurisdiction. When police respond to a traditional criminal incident or complaint, officers follow jurisdictional policies and procedures that correspond to municipal, county, state and federal laws. However, during the investigation of a drone complaint, the jurisdiction can be unknown: It is unclear what agency should respond to a drone-related incident.
How to Address Drone Threats
Then there’s the problem of what officers should do if a drone is determined to be a threat. Threats from these devices are not limited to complaints of low-flying drones in the park, but include danger to commercial airliners, government buildings and correctional facilities, to name a few. There are approximately 100 close calls or sightings every month between commercial airliners and drones.
[Related: The Threat of Drones to Secure Facilities]
Unfortunately, there’s not much an officer can do when faced with a drone threat because there is no simple solution to disabling a drone.
Shooting down a drone, for example, is illegal as well as reckless. While many people believe drones are toys, the government makes it clear that they are aircraft and therefore cannot be shot down. According to U.S. Code 18 USC § 32 (a), the destruction of aircraft can result in being fined and imprisoned for 20 years. It is also dangerous for officers to attempt to shoot down drones as errant rounds fired at the device could harm others or, upon striking the device, could cause it to crash uncontrollably and cause injury to those on the ground.
Another often-discussed solution to disabling a drone is to jam its radio frequency. However, this too is illegal and there is no exception that allows law enforcement to break this federal law. The Communications Act of 1934 prohibits anyone from manufacturing, importing, marketing, selling or operating any jamming devices within the U.S. (47 U.S.C. § 302a(b)).
Finally, some suggest using a drone to capture another drone, midair. However, those who have actually operated a drone recognize the futility and danger involved with this approach. Also, there is a transfer of liability issue. If someone intercepts a UAS, that person is now responsible and liable for both devices.
Detecting drones is challenging as well. The FAA is currently working with several companies to develop and test UAS-detection equipment that can locate drones and operators. The FAA is mostly concerned with drones interfering with commercial and passenger aircraft, so much of its work is focused on airports. The hope is that such technology can use sensors at various locations around an airport to triangulate the location of the drone’s signals.
Training the Public in an Effort to Seek Compliance
One way police can attempt to mitigate issues with drones is by educating the public about FAA regulations. Drone operators, particularly hobbyists, often do not know or understand the FAA’s rules. Police agencies should work to educate and partner with citizens and other community stakeholders to share this information and ensure greater compliance. Conducting educational outreach to stakeholders such as local airports, schools and other organizations can aid in drone compliance and a better understanding of the rules and regulations.
Such an outreach effort will need to be done on a continuous basis in line with the FAA’s efforts to issue piecemeal rules and regulations regarding drone operation. Since the number of drones is only expected to dramatically increase, it is incumbent upon police agencies to prepare its officers about the best way to address situations involving these unmanned aerial devices.
About the Author: Anthony Galante is a former SWAT officer and retired law enforcement officer with more than 10 years of dedicated service. He is a commercial pilot and holds a Master of Aeronautical Science degree from Embry Riddle Aeronautical University and is a graduate of American Military University (M.A. Homeland Security, M.A. Criminal Justice). Galante is currently an assistant professor with American Military University. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.