As drones become more and more commonplace, some authorities have taken to employing their own counter-UAS measures.
Take, for example, the Miami Police, who were recently in the news for hiring a private company to jam signals in order to keep drones from flying at the Ultra music festival.
The reason the Miami Police story is newsworthy is because the jamming was probably done in violation of federal law. In general, the FAA has “exclusive authority to regulate aviation safety,” and therefore any state or local authority interfering with an aircraft without FAA permission is probably violating federal law.
To their credit, the Miami Police didn’t seem to know that what they were doing was against federal law, and shut the jamming down as soon as they found out.
Which points to the larger issue. As drones become a regular presence in the skies local and state authorities want to do something about them, but usually don’t have any idea what they actually can do, if anything.
Related to this, local law enforcement can often be unaware of federal laws concerning drones, and may stop a commercially certified drone pilot from performing an operation that is completely legal simply because they don’t know the law.
To make matters worse, state and local drone laws in the U.S. often directly contradict federal drone laws as outlined by the FAA’s Part 107 rules, with bans on flying in certain locations or in certain manners that are completely FAA-compliant—in other words, completely legal.
In a statement issued last summer, the FAA put this contradiction in very clear terms:
Cities and municipalities are not permitted to have their own rules or regulations governing the operation of aircraft.
– The FAA
Nonetheless, there are still dozens of laws on the books in U.S. cities and municipalities concerning how and where drones can fly, not to mention state laws that contradict federal law.
The FAA’s Statement to Airports Concerning Counter-UAS
Apparently airports are also taking their own counter-UAS steps, or at least there is enough concern that they might for the FAA to issue a statement telling them not to do so.
The statement is brief, and reminds airport operators that the FAA is available to partner with them as they consider installing UAS detection systems, or even if they have already installed such systems.
The major concern expressed in the statement is that non-federal counter-UAS technologies employed at airports—that is, any counter-UAS technology selected and employed without the FAA’s involvement—could pose a serious risk to the navigation of manned aircraft in the area.
The FAA does not support the use of counter-UAS systems by any entities other than federal departments with explicit statutory authority to use this technology, including requirements for extensive coordination with the FAA to ensure safety risks are mitigated.
– The FAA
Airport operators who install or modify their systems or structures with counter-UAS without FAA review are not only endangering manned flights, but potentially breaking the law, since 14 CFR Part 77 requires that all such changes must be reviewed by the FAA.
An Ongoing Issue
This isn’t the first time the FAA has told airports not to use counter-UAS without their review.
On July 19, 2018 the FAA issued a letter to all airport operators reminding them not to take their own counter-UAS measures.
Not surprisingly, this letter was sent one day before the statement concerning federal and local laws that we linked to above was issued, in which the FAA explicitly told cities and municipalities that they could not create their own laws concerning the operation of drones or any other aircraft while in the air (although they can regulate aircraft landing sites, since they relate to zoning and land use).
All of this being said, we don’t expect last week’s statement to airports to be the last word from the FAA reminding people that counter-UAS decisions need to go through them, and the Miami Police probably won’t be the last local authority taking drone-related matters into their own hands, either in ignorance or defiance of federal law.
One thing to be hopeful about right now is the UAS Integration Pilot Program (UAS IPP), the federal program created to allow state and local authorities to test drone operations generally prohibited by the Part 107 rules.
We’ve already seen several waivers issued as a result of these tests, and we can only hope that the program, in addition to normalizing BVLOS and other prohibited operations, may also help bridge the gap between federal and local law.