Senate bill aims to make it a federal offense to fly drones recklessly

Lawmakers and the FAA are concerned about the reckless use of drones

A bill was introduced in the U.S. Senate on Wednesday that will make it a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine or imprisonment for up to a year, for individuals who knowingly operate a drone within 2 miles of a fire, an airport or any other restricted airspace.

Introduced by Senator Barbara Boxer, a Democrat from California, the Safe Drone Act is one of a number of moves at the federal and state level that have been introduced in the wake of concerns about the risks from the reckless use of drones by enthusiasts, including dangers of possible collisions between rogue drones and traditional aircraft.

While introducing the bill, Boxer said that people flying drones recklessly have forced firefighters to suspend air operations out of concern for the safety of the pilots and people on the ground, referring, for example, to an incident in San Bernardino County in California earlier this year, when drones apparently shooting videos disrupted firefighting operations.

A similar version of the bill introduced by Boxer was introduced in August in the House of Representatives.

The Federal Aviation Administration prohibits the flying of model aircraft at closer than 5 miles (8 kilometers) from airports. It also has published draft rules for commercial drones, known as Unmanned Aircraft Systems, which restrict their operations to controlled airspace. A numbers of companies, including Amazon.com, have shown interest in using drones for applications like package deliveries.

Earlier this week, the FAA proposed its largest fine for a UAS operator, amounting to US$1.9 million in civil penalty, against a company that is said to have knowingly conducted 65 unauthorized operations.

The agency is meanwhile working with other organizations on technologies that would prevent drones from coming close to sensitive installations. It said on Wednesday it had tied with CACI International in Arlington, Virginia, to evaluate the company's prototype UAS sensor detection system at select airports. The agency is also looking at the geofencing of drones by using GPS and other technology to impose geographical limits on their movement, according to reports.

Senator Charles Schumer said in August that he would introduce a proposal that aims to make geofencing of drones mandatory. The technology for preventing drones from flying into unauthorized areas is available.  DJI, the manufacturer of the drone that crashed on the lawn of the White House in January, said it would release firmware that would add a no-fly zone around much of Washington, D.C.

The FAA's bid to introduce rules for commercial drones appears to be still some time away if one goes by a statement on Wednesday by Michael G. Whitaker, deputy administrator of the FAA, before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. The FAA received more than 4,500 public comments on the rules, and "we’re working to address those as we finalize the rule," Whitaker told the subcommittee on aviation, without providing a date when the rules could be finalized.

The FAA missed the Sept. 30 deadline Congress had given the agency for the safe integration of drones into the national airspace.

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