Chuck Schumer Wants to Set Up No-Drone Zones Around Airports

The New York senator cited a recent uptick in drone sightings near commercial airliners to advocate for quick action.

Senator Chuck Schumer speaks at New York University on August 11, 2015. (National Journal)

Drones keep popping up where they shouldn't be. This year has seen a sharp increase in the number of drone sightings reported by commercial airline pilots, and recently an errant drone made headlines for getting in the way of firefighters trying to put out a California wildfire.

Now, Congress is getting involved.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, said Wednesday he will introduce legislation that would set up no-fly zones for drones around airports and other "sensitive areas."

The zones would be enforced with geo-fencing technology, which relies on software built into drones to keep them from entering certain areas even if directed there by a human pilot.

Some drone manufacturers, notably Chinese drone giant DJI, already have geo-fencing capabilities built into their drones. Schumer's bill would require all manufacturers to make sure their drones comply with no-fly—or no-drone—zones.

Schumer said he would offer his legislation as an amendment to a bill to extend the authority of the Federal Aviation Administration, which Congress plans to consider when it returns from August recess. A full FAA reauthorization bill will likely not come until 2016, but Schumer said Wednesday the change needs to be immediate.

"When it comes to drones in the vicinity of commercial flights carrying hundreds of passengers at a time, the FAA has been playing Whac-A-Mole across the skies, and that's certainly not good enough," he said Wednesday.

Advocates for commercial drone users have in the past come out in favor of regulations like the ones Schumer is proposing. Bryan Wynne, CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a prominent drone lobby group, said last week he supports greater enforcement of FAA regulations.

"AUVSI supports stricter enforcement of careless and reckless operators and those who violate restricted airspace," Wynne said. "Stricter enforcement will not only punish irresponsible operators, it will also serve as a deterrent to others who may misuse the technology."

The FAA is currently in the process of finalizing a set of rules for commercial drone operations that it proposed in February. Under the rules, it would be much easier for a business to legally operate drones.

Until the rule is finalized, businesses must continue to adhere to the FAA's current rulebook, which requires every business that wants to fly drones to apply for a specific exemption to the FAA's regulations.

But in the absence of the final rule, reports of dangerous drone incidents keep coming. The FAA said this month that airline pilots reported 650 drone sightings between January and early August, already far more than the 238 sightings reported in all of 2014.