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Mar 17, 2015
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FAA to test drone tracking near airports

FAA to test drone tracking near airports
Bart Jansen, USA TODAY4:34 p.m. EDT October 7, 2015

The Federal Aviation Administration announced Wednesday it would test technology to identify drones flying within 5 miles of an airport and tracking them back to their operators.

FAA Deputy Administrator Michael Whitaker told the House Transportation subcommittee on aviation thatCACI International would use existing technology to identify drones by their radio signals, under a partnership with FAA. Otherwise, hundreds of drone reports pouring into the FAA are "very difficult" to track to their ground-based operators, he said.

Whitaker assured lawmakers the testing could be conducted safely without interfering with normal airport operations.

Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., said he received a CACI briefing about the technology used in military applications.

“They can pinpoint the operator,” DeFazio said. “They can force the drone to land, they can force it to go back to the operator. Or, in the case of hostiles, they can deliver something to the operator.”

A CACI spokeswoman referred questions to the FAA.

The FAA didn’t disclose the cost of the research, or the location or time frame of testing.

The FAA’s partnership with CACI is part of the agency’s Pathfinder Program announced in May to work closely with industry in studying drone technology.

“Safety is always the FAA’s top priority and we are concerned about the increasing number of instances where pilots have reported seeing unmanned aircraft flying nearby,” Whitaker said.

The concern is that drones could collide with passenger planes, whose pilots can't always see the small, slower-flying aircraft. The FAA is receiving about 100 reports per month of drone sightings from piloted aircraft, Whitaker said.

Capt. Tim Canoll, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, said drone batteries are dense and heavy and could wreak havoc if ingested into an airliner's engine or striking a windscreen.

“When it hits one, there is going to be a significant event," Canoll said.

FAA typically prohibits drone flights within 5 miles of an airport unless the operator notifies the air-traffic control tower and gets permission to fly. But airline pilots have reported seeing drones while approaching busy airports such as John F. Kennedy and Newark in the New York area in recent months.

John Mengucci, CACI’s chief operating officer and president of U.S. operations, said in a statement that the drone research will address growing safety challenges that airports face nationwide.

The FAA agreement provides a way to detect, identify and track drones and their ground-based operators “in order to protect airspace from inadvertent or unlawful misuse of drones near U.S. airports,” Mengucci said.

Drones don't usually have equipment to signal their presence to other aircraft, like airlines. While drones could potentially be tracked on radar, air-traffic controllers filter radar tracking to avoid confusion with smaller objects such as birds and balloons, experts have said.

CACI's technology can be deployed to protect wide areas around airports and could also be used for temporary flight bans around locations such as forest fires, Mengucci said. The system works day or night in any weather without interfering with other electronics or communications equipment in the same area, he said.

"CACI is committed to supporting the government in detecting irresponsible or malicious drone usage to ensure public safety while supporting responsible users' right to operate their" drones, Mengucci said.
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