Picture: Sorapong Chaipanya/123RF
Picture: Sorapong Chaipanya/123RF

Washington — Commercial US drone flights are set to receive a huge boost as soon as this week with requirements that most of the devices must transmit a radio beacon with a digital licence plate.

All but the smallest drones will have to broadcast a radio signal identifying them and their location under new Federal Aviation Administration regulations, according to a summary of the action.

The new regulations, portions of which will come into play after 30 months of them becoming effective, are an important foundation required before drone deliveries and other commerce can occur. They mark the most significant regulatory expansion in drone capabilities since the devices first trickled into civilian markets about a decade ago.

The actions break a regulatory roadblock that had held up growth in unmanned aircraft technology in the US “requiring an ID broadcast addresses” concerns from federal law enforcement and homeland security agencies that the flying machines would be used for crime and terrorism.

The new rules will be “an essential building block towards safely allowing more complex” drone operations, the agency said in the summary.

Several years ago the agency had been set to expand drone flights over crowds in some cases and to allow them routinely at night, but it was not permitted to move ahead with those rules until it addressed security concerns. Those rules are expected to be finalised as soon as next month, according to the agency.

The Federal Aviation Administration did not reply to messages seeking comment. The White House’s office of management and budget concluded its review of the regulation on Wednesday, according to its website.

It will still be years before swarms of drones operated by companies such as Amazon.coms Prime Air, Alphabet offshoot Wing and United Parcel Service buzz over neighbourhoods dropping off packages. But the new rules provide an important platform for the industry to move towards those goals.

A robust drone-tracking system is needed to ensure the public accepts these new businesses, UPS Flight Forward said in comments on the proposal earlier this year. “If illegal and unsafe operators cannot be identified and stopped, confidence in the system will be eroded and voluntary compliance will be undermined,” the company wrote.

The new regulation will require drones weighing more than 0.25kg to broadcast their identity on a low-power radio frequency such as Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. In that way, police or other authorities can monitor nearby drones. The regulations also allow for existing drones to be retrofitted with such a system.

The rule does not require that the devices broadcast on a signal that can be transmitted by mobile phone networks to a national tracking network, a measure that was originally included in a proposal unveiled last year.

Hobbyists who fly the devices at government-approved sites can seek exemptions, so long as they are flown in restricted areas identified to the Federal Aviation Administration.

The new rules are an attempt to address the explosion of drone use. The Federal Aviation Administration had registered almost 1-million recreational drone users and owned 1.3-million of the devices last year. An additional 385,000 commercial drones had been registered with the agency, according to its data.

At the same time, there is been a surge of reports of the devices flying dangerously near traditional planes and helicopters — even Air Force One — and cases of them being used for drug smuggling or terrorist attacks in other nations. The US national transportation safety board has concluded drones were involved in several US midair collisions.


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