Elaine Chao: We still haven’t identified operators of mystery drones in Colorado and Nebraska

Daniel Howley
Technology Editor

In late December, numerous reports emerged about mysterious groups of drones flying around the skies of eastern Colorado and Nebraska. Seen around the same time each night starting at 7:00 p.m. and running until 10:00 p.m., the drones were reported to measure 6 feet across, moving in groups as large as 30.

The drones raised concerns among residents and law enforcement in the region, and, according to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, we might never know who’s been flying them.

"We don't know who they belong to, we don't know who's operating them, to this day we do not," Chao told Yahoo Finance Editor-in-Chief Andy Serwer during an interview at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

LIMON, COLORADO - JANUARY 2: The grouping of lights in the center of the photograph shows a drone flying several hundred feet in the night sky on January 2, 2020 near Limon, Colorado. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

"We're very lucky nothing happened, so the local law enforcements have stepped down," she explained. "So we're not actively investigating that, because the local law enforcement stood down."

Perfect timing for new rules

The news of the investigations into the drones comes as Chao and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) push for a new rule that would allow for the remote identification of drones in flight. The FAA currently requires owners of both commercial and consumer-grade drones that weigh between 0.55 pounds and 55 pounds register them with the agency.

Once registered, a drone owner receives a registration number for their device that they must then write on or stick to their drone. That's certainly helpful in instances where drones collide with structures, are taken down when flying in unrestricted areas, or crash into other aircraft.

But since you have to physically see the drones up close to read their registration numbers, it does nothing for those that are still aloft.

UNITED STATES - DECEMBER 10: Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao leaves the Capitol on Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2019. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

The proposed rule, according to Chao, would require that all drones over 0.55 pounds have some form of remote identification system. The ID system would enable any third party to get information on virtually any drone in the sky.

The idea here isn't just to prevent drones from flying in restricted airspace, which has been an issue for everything from airports to aerial firefighters who have had to divert their payloads as a result of drones in their flight paths. 

"So our responsibility at the U.S. Department of Transportation is to ensure that the FAA, the agency that's in charge of the drones, again, are viewing safety as a number one priority," Chao said. "We're ensuring security of these drones, because obviously they need to be safe from a cybersecurity point of view. Thirdly, they need to respect privacy."

The new rules are meant to ensure drones can be identified, but also will help in the eventual creation of a full-on Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management System. That system is a project between the FAA, NASA, and other agencies to "ultimately identify services, roles and responsibilities, information architecture, data exchange protocols, software functions, infrastructure, and performance requirements for enabling the management of low-altitude uncontrolled drone operations."

The new drone rules are currently under consideration, and are open for public comment. The period ends on March 2.

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