Commercial Drone Pilots Must Undergo Background Checks Under New FAA Rules

They will soon be vetted under the same secret criteria used for airline pilots and airport security, including the US government's terrorist watchlists.

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Jun 21 2016, 7:15pm

Photo: Shutterstock

Commercial drone pilots in the US will need to submit to criminal background checks before obtaining permission to fly, according to newly finalized rules for unmanned aircraft released Tuesday by the Federal Aviation Administration.

The new rules contain several restrictions on commercial drones under 55 lbs—which the FAA calls Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems, or sUAS—including a requirement that commercial pilots must receive a Security Threat Assessment (STA) from the TSA before receiving flight certification from the FAA.

The screening is part of the certification process and can take up to 7 days; the entire process lasts between 6 to 8 weeks.

"The STA that TSA conducts adheres to the statutory mandate to vet certificate applicants against the government's consolidated terrorist watchlists to determine whether they may pose a threat to national or transportation security," the FAA rules state.

"The FAA defers to TSA's established STA, and TSA's determination of what factors, such as items contained within an individual's criminal record, will rise to the level of disqualification for a remote pilot certificate," the FAA rules continue.

In other words, commercial drone pilots will soon be vetted under the same secret criteria used for airline pilots and airport security, including the US government's controversial and frequently ineffective terrorist watchlists. While federal background checks are fairly standard for lots of other commercial activity, from becoming a nurse to driving a truck containing hazardous materials, the FAA requiring commercial drone operators to undergo background checks is notable in that the FAA is deferring judgement to the TSA and the Department of Homeland Security, which may irk pilots leery of the agency's vague and often-controversial policies.

In other words, commercial drone pilots will soon be vetted under the same secret criteria used for airline pilots and airport security

But don't worry, says the FAA, because the TSA's opaque process for determining who can fly a drone "provides a substantial amount of due process to individuals who believe that they improperly failed an STA."

Specifically, a US person determined to pose a security threat by the TSA's assessment will be notified and can appeal the decision before an administrative law judge, a low-level court officer appointed by the government to hear complaints about government agency, and can then go on to appeal a federal judge.

But there's virtually no hope of appeal for individuals who fail the assessment because they've been placed on one of the US government's terrorist watch lists, which are compiled under a Kafkaesque, extrajudicial process and have spurred class-action lawsuits for frequently targeting innocent Muslims. According to documents released by The Intercept in 2014, nearly half of the 680,000 people on the Terrorist Screening Database are listed as having "no recognized terrorist group affiliation."

The new federal drone regulations also come a day after the US Senate rejected four separate gun control proposals in the wake of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, including one which would have expanded background checks for acquiring firearms.

That means that despite there being only one widely reported (accidental) death caused by a drone in the US, those who wish to own and operate a small drone are now subject to more regulation than those wanting to own and operate a semiautomatic weapon.

The disparity also applies to drone hobbyists. Non-commercial operators flying drones heavier than half a pound are now legally required to submit their name and address to the FAA through an online registration system launched by the agency last December.