Vigorous Enforcement of Existing Laws, Not New Laws, Is What’s Needed

Senator Diane Feinstein has emerged as a champion of increased FAA enforcement action against UAS operators.  In a recent letter to FAA Administrator Huerta, Senator Feinstein urged the FAA to “vigorously enforce laws and regulations against the unsafe operation of drones and to warn operators about the potential hazards and consequences of reckless behavior.”  Senator Feinstein goes on to note that there have been 190 incidents involving UASs reported to the FAA in the last nine months.  These include a number of close encounters between UASs and commercial aircraft during take-off and landing.

Senator Feinstein’s letter does not mention her own UAS “close encounter.”  In January 2014, Senator Feinstein took the unusual role of appearing as a witness before the Senate Commerce Committee in a hearing on UAS policy.  She testified that, during a protest at one of her homes, she “went to the window to peek out — and there was a drone right there at the window looking out at me.”  According to The Wire, the “drone” was, in fact, a 4 inch toy helicopter that was not equipped with a camera.  The article also contains the following link to a video of the alleged Code Pink protestors using the drone at Senator Feinstein’s house.

Senator Feinstein’s letter goes on to state that, despite the number of incidents, the FAA has not taken any enforcement actions over the past nine months.  The letter does not explain that this delay was in large part a result of the uncertainty created by the Pirker appeal, which had caused many people to doubt that the FAA had any authority to regulate UASs.  Now that those issues have been resolved, and the FAA has updated its enforcement handbook to include UAS operations, we can expect that situation to change.

Senator Feinstein also states that she intends to introduce legislation “to codify and expand the moratorium on private drone use without specific authority from the FAA that is already in place.”  The proposed law would also require “safety certifications for expansions of private drone use” as well as “substantial criminal penalties” to go along with the current civil penalty regime.

It is not exactly clear what Senator Feinstein means here.  Right now, “private drone use” is broken down into hobbyists and everyone else.  Except for the very broad guidelines of the Interpretation of the Special Rule for Model Aircraft, hobbyists are free to fly without any certifications or training.  In fact, this loose oversight of model aircraft is a direct result of Congressional action. Section 336  of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 states:

the Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration may not promulgate any rule or regulation regarding a model aircraft, or an aircraft being developed as a model aircraft . . . .

Safety is of course of primary concern as the federal government works methodically to integrate UASs into the National Airspace.  However, given that the majority of these 190 incidents most likely involve hobbyists rather than commercial operators, Senator Feinstein should probably start her work in this area by holding hearings on whether the blanket carve-out for hobbyists was a good idea, and if it wasn’t a good idea, then what additional authority the FAA should have.

That having been said, Plane-ly Spoken has long advocated both a high profile enforcement program and an extensive public awareness campaign to make sure that people understand the navigable airspace above 400 feet is closed to drones, regardless of whether you are a hobbyist or a would-be commercial operator.  We welcome Senator Feinstein’s engagement on these safety issues, and we trust that the UAS community looks forward to conversing with her on this topic.

(Originally posted December 8, 2014)

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