A recently published Government Accountability Office (GAO) report offers some insight into how the FAA enforces drone laws.
The FAA has some options – and some limitations – in how they deal with rogue operators. Available staffing resources at the FAA compared to the sheer volume of drones in the air make it difficult – if not impossible – for the agency to address every complaint. Drones come with a far lower price point than planes do, and anyone can purchase one: making them more like cars than manned aircraft in that respect. Unlike cars, however, the risk posed by drones is comparatively small.
“FAA officials told us that given its overall responsibilities for aviation safety and the lower risk posed by small UAS compared to manned aircraft, its resources for actively pursuing unsafe small UAS users are limited, and identifying such users is challenging,” says the report.
What can the FAA do? The GAO report describes three options:
“FAA officials told us that the agency is following its “compliance philosophy” to help ensure users abide by the small UAS regulations,” says the GAO report. “Under this philosophy, FAA’s approach involves three types of possible actions: (1) compliance actions, (2) administrative actions, and (3) legal enforcement actions … The compliance philosophy also calls for FAA to emphasize the use of compliance actions over enforcement actions whenever appropriate.”
“Compliance Actions” are about education, on-the-spot correction and notification. “Administrative Actions” are letters of correction or warning letters; and “Legal Enforcement Actions” may involve civil penalties and/or suspending or revoking an operator’s license.
“According to FAA’s data, from June 7, 2007 through May 2, 2018 the agency took 420 compliance actions, 49 administrative actions, and 49 enforcement actions against small UAS users; the data do not distinguish between recreational and commercial users,” says the report.
Legal Enforcement Actions
FAA reserves legal enforcement actions for egregious situations – like those that touch the activities of other government or civil agencies. “The 2016 act authorized FAA to begin immediately assessing civil penalties of up to $20,000 for UAS pilots or operators who knowingly or recklessly interfere with wildfire suppression, law enforcement, or other emergency response activities.” [emphasis DRONELIFE.]
Fines, however, seem rarely used. As of May 2018, the FAA reports imposing only one civil penalty in the amount of $9,700; there is one other case still open. (An attached table in the report states that 46 civil penalties have been imposed by the FAA, presumably the other actions have not involved fines.)
Perhaps far more serious for commercial operators are the other options for legal enforcement: suspension or revocation of certificate. Chris Korody, author of the Dronin’ On newsletter, says that option could represent a significant deterrent: “In practical terms the threat to pull a ticket (suspend or revoke a license) for a pilot of air carrier or MRO carries a massive economic penalty,” says Korody. “They [FAA] don’t need to throw people in jail, just drive them to the poor house.” The report indicates that this option has also been used rarely: the FAA has suspended 1 certificate and revoked 2.
The problem with this as an enforcement tool is obvious – it can only punish operators already following the rules by properly obtaining their Part 107. The rogue operators causing problems because they are unaware of regulations may not have a certificate to revoke.
For serious issues – those that could be construed as a terrorist threat, for example – the FAA may coordinate with other agencies. Some federal agencies – Department of the Interior, U.S. Forestry Service, U.S.D.A. – have no specific authority to counter drone threats. Others have some authority, with limitations.
“DOJ officials told us that while some use of certain detection technologies for UAS may generally be permissible under current law (e.g., systems that use radar, electro-optical, acoustic, or radio frequency sensors that are configured to passively scan a geographic area for the presence of UAS), other activities—such as jamming or hijacking the radio signals that control a UAS or taking down a UAS by hitting it with a projectile—may be restricted under current statutes,” says the report.
“…In response to several agencies’ concern about such restrictions, in May 2017, DOD proposed to Congress to grant federal agencies legal authority to detect UAS to determine whether they pose a threat to the agencies’ facilities or operations and to redirect or disable those UAS determined to pose such a threat,” the report continues. “DOD included the proposed authority in one of its legislative proposals for the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018. The enacted version of the act did not include the proposed authority.” [Emphasis DRONELIFE.]
When it comes to the less dramatic work of investigating regular rogue drones – not those who might reasonably pose a terror threat or other major incident – Department of Transportation Inspector General (DOTIG) may be involved. DOTIG investigates “serious violations” which the report defines as those “involving injury to persons, property damage, or operating near an airport.”
When the police report a violation to the FAA, FAA refers when appropriate to DOTIG. DOTIG has “criminal investigative authority”, the FAA does not.
When the Law Gets Involved
What about cases that may not get referred to NTSA (National Transportation Safety) or DOTIG? In some cases, rogue drone operators are subject to enforcement actions just like any other criminal. Drone operators using their drones to stalk or harass other people are subject to the same laws concerning stalking or harassment in any other way. Operators who threaten damage to monuments – like the now infamous drone crashing into the Seattle Space Needle – may find themselves in a regular court facing penalties that range from jail time to fines, or both.
FAA published a Fact Sheet for law enforcement agencies suggesting cooperation; some communities like San Diego have established specific ordinances that authorize local law enforcement to deal with rogue drones.
Who’s in Charge?
The FAA claims authority over the NAS, and ultimately FAA is the agency that will be responsible for coordinating regulations. But when it comes to enforcement, overlapping responsibilities make the situation less clear. Terrorist threats or interference with first response efforts may come under different jurisdiction than a drone operating carelessly near an airport. Drones harassing people or interfering with local sensitive sites may be a local law enforcement problem.
It’s a difficult issue, but one that comes naturally with the rapid growth of the industry. Just as the regulation framework concerning motor vehicles took time to develop, drone regulations and the enforcement framework are evolving. Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM), drone identification technologies, and flight planning tools are all moving the industry towards integration and a smoothly operating system of regulation and enforcement. In the meantime, the drone industry will need to step up to help educate new pilots – or risk the negative effects of bad publicity from rogue drones.
Miriam McNabb is the Editor-in-Chief of DRONELIFE and CEO of JobForDrones, a professional drone services marketplace, and a fascinated observer of the emerging drone industry and the regulatory environment for drones. Miriam has a degree from the University of Chicago and over 20 years of experience in high tech sales and marketing for new technologies.