The FAA has put in to the Office of Management and Budget to seek approval for a web-based tool for drone sightings. The system will be used for “airborne and ground based observations by the public of drone behaviour that they consider suspicious or illegal.”
Simply put, if you see a drone you think is suspicious, you’ll be able to report it using this tool.
The actual dangers of drones to the general populace is still largely unknown due to the lack of research in the area. However, some third-party enthusiasts are conducting small-scale tests to help the issue. Congress had directed the FAA to get more information on the dangers of drones, and the proposed web-based system will be in compliance with this directive. However, it is still unclear whether the proposed system is necessary. Also not known is the accuracy of the burden estimated by the FAA, and how it will be minimized without reducing the quality of the collected information.
Granted that such a system works to alleviate the concerns of a paranoid public, it does have many obvious loopholes. There is no set definition of the kind of drone activity that could be considered suspicious; people unfamiliar with drones wouldn’t know what’s regular and what isn’t. For instance, a completely harmless geographical survey bypass by a drone could be interpreted as an invasion of privacy. This will happen even if said drone has the appropriate permissions for its flight.
In case of actual suspicious activity, identifying the drone would be almost impossible for someone who’s not a drone operator, as would involve determining the height at which it’s flying. Moreover, a large section of the population is already apprehensive about drones as it is. If the FAA decides to crack down on the operators of the ‘suspicious’ drones who were somehow tracked down (if at all), it would create a tense atmosphere for everyone.
So, the idea of a drone sighting helpline is novel, and could be useful under the right circumstances. However, commercial drones just gaining momentum in the market, people are yet to see them as something other than dangerous. This could cause a significant number of grievances, with the gathered data literally going to waste.
This proposal is one of many initiatives taken by the FAA during the past two years to regularize drone use, such as its FAA Reauthorization Act, and the UTM system (in collaboration with NASA). Let’s home something useful comes to fruition out of this idea.