Government tests technology to find illegal drone operators

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Federal Aviation Administration has signed an agreement to test technology that could locate the operators of small drones that are flying illegally near airports, as the government tries to crack down on near-collisions with manned aircraft.

The technology would let the government track radio signals used to operate drones within a 5-mile radius and identify the operator's location, an FAA official told the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on Wednesday. The FAA has yet to decide when and where the technology will be used, said Michael Whitaker, the deputy administrator.

The FAA is receiving about 100 reports a month from pilots of sightings of drones flying near planes and airports, compared with only a few sightings per month last year, Whitaker said. The concern is that even a drone weighing only a few pounds might cause serious damage if it is sucked into an engine or smashes through a cockpit windshield.

"One of the biggest challenges we're having is locating the operator," Whitaker said

The technology "provides a proven way to passively detect, identify, and track" drones and their operators on the ground, according to a statement from John Mengucci, president of CACI International Inc., the company providing the technology. The FAA signed the agreement this week.

From November 2014 to August 2015 the FAA received more than 700 drone-sighting reports from pilots. The U.S. Forest Service also has reported 18 unauthorized drone flights above or near wildfires, saying 10 of those hampered aerial firefighting.

Hobbyists are allowed to fly drones at altitudes below 400 feet as long as they stay 5 miles away from an airport, to avoid conflicts with manned aircraft. The FAA has granted about 1,700 permits to commercial drone operators under similar restrictions.

The near collisions and unauthorized drone operations have alarmed lawmakers and the public; recreational users are suspected in most of the cases.

There have been "interruptions in critical firefighting because of idiots operating their toy drone," said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore. "There need to be consequences for people who do those sorts of things."

But Richard Hanson, a lobbyist for the Academy of Model Aeronautics, told the committee that the situation has been exaggerated. The group examined the sightings reported to the FAA and concluded that actual dangerous encounters number in the dozens rather than the hundreds. Some sightings have turned out to be birds and even government-operated drones.

Tim Canoll, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, urged lawmakers to pass legislation requiring the FAA to more closely regulate drone flights by hobbyists.

When a drone does collide with an airliner, it is "going to be a significant event," Canoll said. "And it's going to be a challenge for the flight crew to save the aircraft."

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Follow Joan Lowy on Twitter at http://www.twiter.com/AP_Joan_Lowy

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