Friday, Sept. 8, 2017 | 2 a.m.
Even as drones prove essential in Hurricane Harvey’s aftermath, the Federal Aviation Administration is exploring new ways to detect them when they’re being used for illegal and malicious activities.
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, speaking at the InterDrone conference at the Rio on Wednesday, said drones are playing a transformative role in post-hurricane operations in the Houston area and the FAA had to give clearances quickly.
“We recognized that we needed to move fast — faster than we have ever moved before,” he said. "We basically made the decision that anyone with a legitimate reason to fly an unmanned aircraft would be able to do so. In most cases, we were able to approve individual operations within minutes of receiving a request.”
By the end of last week, Huerta said the FAA had issued more than 70 authorizations covering a wide range of activities by local, state and federal agencies. That number is expected to climb as the cleanup efforts continue.
Huerta said drones were used to survey damage to roads, bridges, underpasses and water treatment plants that required immediate repair. Oil and energy companies used drones to spot damage to flooded infrastructure.
“Every drone that flew meant that a traditional aircraft was not putting an additional strain on an already fragile system,” Huerta said. “I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the hurricane response will be looked back upon as a landmark in the evolution of drone usage in this country.”
Despite the many constructive uses of drones, people are using them for illegal activity as well. Huerta noted drones have been used to fly contraband into federal prisons over a dozen times in the last five years.
“Just last month, three men were arrested for allegedly using a drone to drop drugs and a cellphone into a prison in Ionia, Mich.,” he said.
Additionally, Huerta said there has been an increase in drone sightings in restricted airspace, including interfering with wildfire fighting operations, crashing drones in crowded urban areas and flying them near crowded stadiums.
Drone users have also flown in restricted airspace around the nation’s airports, with some of those reports coming from McCarran International Airport.
“We’re receiving an average of about 200 drone-sighting reports from pilots each month this year,” he said. “That’s significantly higher than in both 2016 and 2015. We’ve had a number of reports from pilots right around Las Vegas in just the past month — at altitudes of up to 6,000 feet.”
To attempt to address these issues, Huerta said the Drone Advisory Committee has been asked to look at ways to complement other work that’s been done to evaluate technology that could be used to detect drones flying without authorization around airports and other critical infrastructure.
“This spring, we completed the fifth and final field evaluation of potential drone detection systems, at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport,” he said. “We’re going to use the information we got from the evaluations to develop minimum performance standards for drone-detection technology that might be deployed around airports here in the U.S.”
Huerta said the effort included FAA’s partners in the Pathfinder and unmanned aircraft test site programs, including the test site in Northern Nevada.
The FAA marked the one-year anniversary of its small unmanned aircraft rule, or Part 107, on Aug. 29. In the first year, the FAA registered more than 79,000 commercial aircraft and 59,000 remote pilot certificates. He said 92 percent of the people who take the pilot certificate exam passed it.
“The rule really was a game changer because it allows for routine public and commercial operations, without getting case-by-case FAA approvals — provided they are conducted within the parameters of the rule,” Huerta said.
“Very few people would have envisioned that within a few years, drones would be the fastest-growing field in aviation,” Huerta said. “And few people would have envisioned that the FAA would be devoting so much of its energy and resources to this field.”