Rotor & Wing International

Police’s Role in Small UAS Enforcement

Of most concern to law enforcement is the operator who treats flying a drone like playing a video game and has no regard for airspace rules.

The FAA is projecting the small-model hobbyist unmanned aircraft system (UAS) fleet to more than double from rougly 1.1 million vehicles in 2017 to 2.4 million units by 2022. Not even counting commercial units, that is a lot of drones. One might believe that the proliferation of them will eventually blot out the sun!

There is a factor, however, that is constantly overlooked in these figures: attrition. You don’t hear much talk in the industry about attrition. With the technological advancements in just the past two years, operating a drone is easy. Collision avoidance is standard equipment on most drones sold today. But many people who buy them have no experience with one, and because of this lack of experience and simple mistakes, accidents happen. How many drones sold every year fly once or twice, crash or fly away, never to be seen again? The kid who gets one as a birthday present, flies it a few times then has a crackup. They might manage to get some less-than-stellar video of the backyard birthday party, but will eventually lose interest, and the drone goes on the shelf in the closet or garage. It’s my belief that this is exactly what happens to most drones sold in big box stores every year.

There are always the exceptions to the rule, of course, and of most concern to law enforcement is the operator who treats flying a drone like playing a video game and has no regard for airspace rules. They disregard every regulation and try to see just how high they can fly their toy. These are the individuals about whom law enforcement receives alerts, and they are very hard to catch.

So for these nefarious operators who pose a risk to air traffic, what is law enforcement’s role in mitigating and enforcing that risk? U.S. Congress wants to know and has commissioned the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) to study local agencies’ handling of drone compliance and enforcement.

Several years ago, the FAA circulated to state and local law enforcement a document, “Law Enforcement Guidance to Unauthorized UAS Operations.” My immediate feeling was that they (the FAA suits in D.C.) had a lot of nerve soliciting local cops to do their jobs. There has been a lot of media attention (which spurs Congressional attention) given to errant drone sightings and operations, but the reality is that very little enforcement has taken place. The reason is easy to understand: just like local cops, the FAA is understaffed. Understandably, they need help. But herein lies the problem. State, county and municipal police officers generally cannot enforce federal regulations. And state, county and municipal police officers cannot make property seizures for violations of federal regulations either. They can only take enforcement action, or seize property, when a corresponding municipal ordinance, county or state law is violated.

HR302 (2018 FAA Reauthorization Bill), in its final stages through Congress, had a Senate-added provision. Codified in the bill makes it a federal crime to “knowingly” or “recklessly” disrupt operation of an aircraft carrying one or more occupants with a UAS in a manner that poses an imminent safety hazard to such occupant(s). Operating within a runway exclusion zone is included. An operator can be fined and imprisoned up to one year or both. If serious bodily injury occurs out of such an act, the perpetrator can get a fine and imprisonment for up to 10 years or both. Take out an airliner, and the drone operator will get a life sentence. Each individual state now needs a similar codified law.

In 2012, it became a federal crime to aim a laser light at an aircraft. Shortly thereafter, the Texas Legislature created Penal Code 42.14 “Illumination of Aircraft by Intense Light.” Prior to this law, local officers had few options to deal with those who pointed laser lights at aircraft. Currently, a person pointing a laser at an aircraft can be arrested by a local, county or state law enforcement officer, placed in jail and the laser seized as evidence. State laws codifying unsafe drone operations would give responding agencies the same courses of action. After an arrest, it gives them time to contact the proper federal authorities who can then decide if the case rises to the level needed for federal prosecution. In the meantime, the perpetrator is off the streets and no longer creating a danger to air commerce.

But so far this year, only one state has proposed this kind of legislation — West Virginia. RWI