Can You Curb Wayward Drones With a Dog Fence in the Sky?

A drone being operated in the borough of Brooklyn, New York City.

A drone being operated in the borough of Brooklyn, New York City.

Photographer: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg

They’ve buzzed the White House, come too close to planes, attempted to airlift drugs over prison walls and interfered with firefighters in California.

In fact, drones have been involved in so many incidents that some U.S. lawmakers are proposing to fight technology with technology -- requiring an aerial version of an invisible dog fence to block unmanned aircraft from flying in sensitive areas.

Similar to how electronic fences zap dogs to keep them within boundaries, the fence-in-the-sky uses global-positioning systems to mark no-fly zones for drones. Trouble is, the systems, known as geo-fencing, may not be effective against the growing lawlessness in the skies.

Geo-fence technology can be overridden and it won’t work on older or cheaper models, education campaigns haven’t seemed to work so far and catching violators has proven almost impossible.

“As long as there’s YouTube and everybody’s competing for the coolest video, there’s going to be drones out there,” Jim Williams, the former chief of the Federal Aviation Administration’s unmanned aircraft division, said in an interview. “My confidence isn’t high that this will go away.”

Geo-fencing holds some of the best promise to rein in drone excesses, but will hardly be a panacea as the surge of drone incidents is expected to exceed 1,000 this year.

The FAA is testing a smart-phone app that shows drone users where it’s safe to fly.
The FAA is testing a smart-phone app that shows drone users where it’s safe to fly.
Source: Federal Aviation Administration via Bloomberg

Geo-fencing Mandate

Before geo-fencing can be mandated, the government must first write regulations, an often cumbersome process that can take years, said Williams, who is now a drone-industry consultant at the Dentons US LLP law firm.

The technology also won’t work for cheaper models without GPS, he said. And as many as 1 million consumer drones have already been sold in the U.S., many of which may never be updated with geo-fence boundaries, he said.

“That’s great going forward, but the ones that are out there already are difficult,” Alex Mirot, president of the Unmanned Safety Institute, said. His Maitland, Florida, company trains drone operators and has advised airports on steps to address the risks created by unmanned aircraft.

The geo-fencing limits are also vulnerable to being disabled or hacked, said Kevin Finisterre, a computer security consultant in Columbus, Ohio, who has studied software on drones made by different manufacturers.

SZ DJI Technology Co., the Shenzhen, China-based firm that is the leading producer of consumer drones, already includes more than 6,700 restricted zones around the world in its geo-fencing software.

Monthly reports to FAA of drones flying in prohibited areas or too close to other aircraft.
Monthly reports to FAA of drones flying in prohibited areas or too close to other aircraft.

Restricted Areas

It still may be possible to fly DJI drones in restricted areas because in some cases the system provides a warning without halting the flight, DJI Vice President of Policy and Legal Affairs Brendan Schulman said in an e-mail. That’s because drones are allowed to fly in some normally prohibited zones if operators receive FAA approval, Schulman said.

The FAA generally restricts unmanned aircraft from flying more than 400 feet above the ground and within five miles of airports. There have been almost 700 incidents this year in which pilots and and other crew members reported seeing drones violating airspace rules, according to a database released Aug. 21 by the FAA.

While in most cases, pilots on traditional planes said they didn’t have to take evasive action, there was at least one possible collision with a drone, according to the FAA database.

Loud Thump

A pilot of an unidentified small plane said he heard a loud thump on April 27 near Livermore, California. Scratches on the fuselage and propeller were found after landing, according to the FAA.

In other instances, pilots said they have narrowly missed hitting unmanned craft. Airline crews in cities such as New York, Boston and Los Angeles have reported seeing drones as they prepared to land.

As a result of cases like these, California Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, introduced legislation in June that would require stricter regulation of unmanned aircraft.

In addition to geo-fencing, drones would have to broadcast their identity, location and altitude while flying, under the legislation.

Such technology is justified even though it may increase the cost of drones or cause sales to decline, said Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat who supports the bill.

“We don’t sell less expensive cars without seat belts or airbags,” Blumenthal said in an interview.

Drone Provisions

New drone provisions could be included in legislation setting the FAA’s broad policy goals, which Congress is writing this fall.

Representative Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat who is the highest ranking member of his party on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, asked the Department of Transportation for suggestions on how to reduce drone safety incidents in an Aug. 26 letter.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx in interviews has suggested requiring registration of newly purchased drones, while FAA Administrator Michael Huerta has said the agency is looking at the feasibility of technology to identify operators. The FAA is also testing a smart-phone app that shows drone users where it’s safe to fly.

While such steps may make sense, especially for drone users who aren’t familiar with FAA regulations, they are relatively easy to thwart, Richard Hanson, spokesman for the Academy of Model Aeronautics, said.

Some people assemble drones from kits and many are sold online by companies outside the U.S., where enforcement would be difficult, said Hanson, whose group represents 180,000 members who fly model planes. The AMA believes the risks are being overblown and the government shouldn’t attempt a rushed response, he said.

“It’s not as easy an issue and the fixes aren’t as easy as some people try to make it,” he said.

Law Enforcement

The law enforcement arm of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection knows how difficult it is, said Captain Richard Cordova.

There have been at least a dozen cases this year in which drones were spotted near wildfires, forcing the agency to temporarily ground its fleet of aircraft dropping water and chemicals on blazes, Cordova said.

In spite of working with local police, drone operators have melted away each time and no one has been caught, he said.

The FAA has opened more than 20 investigations of drone misuse, assessing penalties in five of them.

“It’s hard,” said John Robbins, an assistant professor and coordinator of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Unmanned Aerial Systems program. “You can kind of look at it as the wild west of aviation right now.”

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