White House seeks authority to track and destroy drones

Shutterstock image. Copyright: Ivan Cholakov 

Only a few weeks after a district court struck down the federal government's rules requiring recreational drone owners to register their aircraft, the White House drafted legislation that would give federal agencies the right to track and possibly destroy unmanned aircraft over certain domestic facilities and events.

The news was first reported in the New York Times.

The draft bill would let government agencies and law enforcement monitor drone radio communications to determine if the aircraft is a threat to a "covered operation" or facility in the U.S. and then intercept, confiscate and/or destroy the aircraft.   

The draft bill appeared just after the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., struck down the Federal Aviation Administration's registration requirement for recreational drone owners that it said conflicts with federal law.

The rules, rolled out by the FAA in 2015, were an attempt to get a handle on the exploding popularity of small unmanned aircraft and work them safely into an increasingly crowded U.S. airspace. That year saw increasing reports of drones interfering with civilian aviation and other airborne activity, including drones operating near airports, at high altitudes or in the vicinity of emergency response aircraft. Those reports have accelerated since, with an increasing number of "close calls" between the small aircraft and large commercial airliners and other manned aircraft.

The court agreed with the model aircraft hobbyist who filed the suit saying that the FAA's 2015 rule violated the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act, which states the FAA "may not promulgate any rule or regulation regarding a model aircraft."

Under the proposed legislation, a "covered operation" could include federal offices, employees, agents or contractors and armed forces, in support of public safety law enforcement or national or homeland security.

Those operations would be designated by the head of a department or agency, and would include search and rescue operations; medical evacuations; wildland firefighting; border patrol, large public events designated by the Department of Homeland Secruity as a "National Security Special Event" or "Special Event Assessment Ratings"; hunting down fugitives; law enforcement investigations; prison and detention monitoring; securing ports, nuclear materials transport, military training exercises, or emergency response.

The proposed rules, according to the document, would not only help secure events and facilities, but they would also help the law catch up with drone technology.

For instance, it said current federal wiretap statutes that prohibit tapping the content of wireless communications also prohibit accessing the wireless telemetry signals used to pilot drone aircraft remotely.

The ability to intercept and interfere with in-flight drones, however, could run afoul of the Aircraft Sabotage Act that imposes criminal penalties on anyone who "damages,  destroys,  disables,  or  wrecks  any  aircraft" in the aircraft jurisdiction of the U.S., according to the document.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a staff writer at FCW.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, tele.com magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at mrockwell@fcw.com or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.

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