Feds seek to pinpoint drone operators' locations

JOAN LOWY, Associated Press

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 detect radio signals used to operate drones within a 5-mile radius, which would provide 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, 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 windshield.

The technology "provides a proven way to passively detect, identify, and track" aerial 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.

Between November 2014 and August 2015, the FAA received over 700 reports by pilots of drone sightings, although questions have been raised about whether some reports involved birds mistaken for drones. Most of the flights appear to be unauthorized.

Hobbyists are allowed to fly drones as long as they stay 5 miles away from an airport and fly no higher than 400 feet. The FAA has granted about 1,700 permits to commercial operators with similar restrictions.

Also, the U.S. Forest Service has reported 18 unauthorized drone flights above or near wildfires, and that 10 of the incidents hampered aerial fire-fighting operations.

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