The Federal Aviation Administration plans to require electronic identification for drones – think automobile license plates, but without the plates – by early next year, said Kyle Snyder, director of the NextGen Air Transportation Consortium at North Carolina State University.

Law enforcement officers will be able to know who owns a wayward drone and where it comes from, even from the ground. “There will be no more hiding,” Snyder said. Officials need to determine what kind of device will be used to receive or transmit the electronic identification. Also still to be worked out are some of the enforcement duties.

The FAA is responsible for violations such as flying with a blood-alcohol content above .04 percent – half the legal limit for driving a land vehicle – or into a military flight zone without permission. Local law enforcement steps in when a drone pilot breaks a state regulation, such as illegally recording people.

But enforcing drone regulations is still in its infancy. Sheriffs throughout the state are not sure yet how it will work, said John Aldridge, assistant general counsel for the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association. Typically, when a 911 call goes out for a suspected violation, a deputy could go to the scene, find the pilot and warn him to stop, Snyder said. A federal violation such as illegally impeding a manned aircraft would be pursued by the FAA and could bring a $5,000 fine, he said.

For drinking while droning, an officer could investigate, possibly administer a sobriety test, and report those results to the FAA. It is uncertain what kind of citation would be issued. “There is no state law for flying under the influence,” Snyder said.

Examples of rogue drone flying are many. A man flew one over a large fire in downtown Raleigh last month, breaking several rules including flying at night and beyond his line of sight, Snyder said. The pilot posted the footage online along with his identity.

Despite the concerns of increasingly crowded airspace, drones are useful in emergencies. A sheriff’s office used a drone to fly a personal flotation device to a victim surrounded by high water in the flooding of Hurricane Matthew, Aldridge said.

“That makes perfect sense,” he said. “It can be done safely and effectively,” Snyder said. “Drones can share the same airspace with manned aircraft.”

The advantages of drones include being able to navigate otherwise unreachable locations more closely and easily compared to larger aircraft, providing a quicker response time; removing the human risk that can come with operating larger aircraft; and conducting search-and-rescue missions less expensively.

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