Smart Drones and FAA Regulations

Drone deliveries have already made an appearance in our online shopping experience. For example, Amazon Prime Air made its first delivery in December 2016 and has made even more ambitious journeys in the United Kingdom.  Before all of our parcels are delivered that way, however, there are several regulatory hurdles. The Federal Aviation Administration UAS operational rules require a pilot to operate the drone within a visual line of sight and limits flight times to daylight and twilight hours.  The FAA offers waivers for operators who could conduct flight safely; this provision is meant to allow commercial enterprises and other organizations to explore ways to make drone flight technology more safe and secure and to shape future regulations as drone use continues to expand.

The FAA, NASA, and a number of other committees and corporations have been working together to develop and test 360 degree microwave sensors, geo-fencing software, and drone detection systems in order to make long-distance drone flights safer. According to FAA advisor Greg McNeal, the FAA will propose its first set of rules governing flights beyond the visual line of sight in 2019.

However, expanding drone usage beyond the line of sight poses a number of risks, a significant one being cybersecurity. Drones can be used to destroy data centers, deliver illegal contraband, or expand the access of an earthbound hacker to Wi-Fi networks she would not normally be able to reach. Furthermore, drones are susceptible to hacking themselves. Data exchanges during drone flights that prevent collisions use the same augmented long-range radio technology used with in-flight connectivity to aircraft, referred to as the ADS-B system.  This technology would need to be expanded to accommodate an influx of usage by drones. If a hacker is able to use drones to spread false ADS-B messages, the confusion could lead to anything from annoyance at the airport to full-on collisions between aircraft. Additionally, there are two more ways in which drones can be hacked: first, it is possible to spoof the GPS signal the drone uses to navigate and force it to land; and second, the command and control link between the drone and its operator can be jammed or hijacked by a hacker.  Drones pose yet another layer of risk because they often carry other devices, such as cameras, that are susceptible to hacking as well.

The market for drones has been growing each year, and it is only a matter of time before they are used for routine long-distance deliveries. As drone use become more frequent, it is essential that the market keep up with patches to these known vulnerabilities and that the growth of the market be guided by sensible regulation.

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