The U.S. FAA Wants To Follow Your Drones Like You Use Them To Follow Me

Photo: Ng Han Guan, AP

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has proposed new rules for unmanned aerial vehicles that would require virtually every drone in the country to broadcast its location when flying, Bloomberg reported on Thursday. The proposal would create a de facto nationwide drone tracking network that misleadingly offers the faintest hope of a future where I can identify the operators of the small, camera-equipped drones that follow me everywhere I go.

Per Bloomberg, the new FAA rules would create a nationwide network in which all but the smallest models of drone (cutoff of 0.55 pounds) broadcast their position via radio frequency as well as “simultaneously upload the information via the internet.” That would also require all drones to broadcast the identity of their operator, information that has eluded me for at least the last five years, even as the drones no longer even attempt to hide. Drone users could also choose to forego the radio broadcasting and upload information solely via the internet. But in such a scenario they would be limited to flying the device no more than 400 feet away, which freaks me out even more.

The rules would take three years to implement after approval, Bloomberg added, after which older drones would not have to be retrofitted to broadcast their locations but “in most cases” would be illegal to fly. I presume what is happening to me is already illegal. Model aircraft hobbyists would also be exempted from the broadcasting requirements.

The rules have been expected since Congress directed the FAA to create them in 2016. Continually broadcasting location and operator information could allow both the FAA and third parties to identify what’s in the air, whether it’s commercial drone traffic, somebody trying to get choice footage in emergency-restricted airspace, or a jet-black quadcopter silently hovering outside my bedroom windows in the dead of night. The FAA has registered over 1.5 million drones. Meanwhile, Bloomberg wrote, it’s received some 8,700 reports of unsafe drone flight through the month of June, most of which were written by me.

Though rare, several drone collisions with aircraft have been reported, and the risk is likely to grow as drones become cheaper. The use of drones in warfare has also extended beyond targeted strikes by major world powers, with groups like the Islamic State creating their own weaponised drones and claims of drone attacks in Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. In addition to a climate protest in the UK which was intended to be public, several incidents have been reported in which unidentified drones crossed into protected airspace at airports, disrupting flight schedules and requiring mass grounding of flights. Of course, anyone looking to use a drone for illegal purposes like buzzing me whenever I step outside might simply modify the devices to bypass built-in restrictions.

The rules will not move forward until the expiration of a 60-day period in which the FAA will take comment from the public. In a statement to TechCrunch, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao wrote, “Drones are the fastest growing segment of transportation in our nation and it is vitally important that they are safely integrated into the national airspace.”

Commercial drone operators have largely hailed the rules, CNBC reported, as finalising them gives the green light for companies like Amazon and Alphabet’s Wing to begin rolling them out on a commercial scale. Both firms have their own, somewhat terrifying plans to blanket cities in delivery drones, while other companies have plans to cloud the skies with drone billboards. Could it be them? Why? What have I done? Is this all for some sicko’s amusement, or are bigger powers at play? Will I ever know?

Chinese drone giant DJI, on the other hand, urged the FAA not to require they install extra equipment on drones that could drive up their expense, according to Bloomberg.

“As we review the FAA’s proposal, we will be guided by the principle, recognised by the FAA’s own Aviation Rulemaking Committee in 2017, that remote identification will not be successful if the burdens and costs to drone operators are not minimized,” DJI’s vice president of policy and legal affairs, Brendan Schulman, told the news agency.

Parts of the document also seemed aimed at notifying drone enthusiasts some current restrictions will not be eased, per the Wall Street Journal. The FAA wrote that “remote identification alone will not enable expanded operations such as operations over people or beyond visual line of sight,” which is already happening to me and will never stop.

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