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Drones at CES
Drones were visible in abundance at CES. (FAA Photo)

Drone sightings by commercial pilots are on the rise, and so is the Federal Aviation Administration’s research into systems that detect and defend against unmanned aerial vehicles.

In cooperation with other government agencies and industry partners, the FAA has been testing technologies designed to detect unauthorized drone operations near airports and other critical infrastructure, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta told a packed audience today at the CES show in Las Vegas.

“We’ve evaluated some of these technologies in some pretty complicated places, airports like New York, and Denver, and smaller places like Atlantic City,” he said.

Huerta said further tests will be conducted later this year around Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.

“We’re using the data and findings from these evaluations to draft recommendations for standards. And these standards will help inform airport operators nationwide who are considering installing drone defense systems,” he said.

FAA chief Michael Huerta
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta meets the press at CES. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

Increases in drone sales, and drone sightings, are big factors behind the focus on anti-drone defenses.

“Despite our education efforts, we are seeing an increasing number of drone sighting reports from pilots,” Huerta said. “We had about 1,800 in 2016, compared with 1,200 in 2015.”

The FAA is counting on drone registration to help the authorities keep track of who’s flying what: More than 670,000 operators have registered since the signup system was put into effect a little more than a year ago, including 37,000 in the last two weeks of December, Huerta said.

Since the FAA’s rules for commercial operations took effect in August, more than 30,000 people have applied to become certified drone pilots. About 16,000 of them have taken the required exam, and almost 90 percent of them got a passing grade, Huerta said.

The next step is to draw up regulations for drone operations that take place over uninvolved members of the public. The FAA’s Drone Advisory Council and other stakeholders have been considering that set of rules for months, but Huerta said more time will be needed to address issues raised during the deliberations.

He said the FAA, NASA and other agencies conducted a test in October that involved flying multiple drones performing different tasks simultaneously in shared airspace near Reno-Stead Airport in Nevada.

The FAA is also looking into scenarios for letting drones fly beyond an operator’s visual line of sight – which is considered essential for the kinds of commercial delivery systems that Amazon and other companies are developing.

Although Huerta didn’t announce a timetable for beyond-line-of-sight flight, he indicated that regulators didn’t intend to dawdle. The market won’t dawdle either: By 2020, the FAA expects to see as many as 7 million drones, registered and unregistered, sold in the U.S. annually.

“Things are only going to get more complicated, not less. …. The pace of change is breathtaking,” Huerta said.

Watch Huerta’s entire talk here:

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