many drones in the sky (Andy Dean Photography/

FAA to sort out drone spectrum-use strategy

One mandate in the wide-ranging Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act of 2018 signed last week by President Donald Trump gives three agencies barely nine months to figure out what spectrum drones should use to communicate.

The legislation points to the L-band and C-band as potential options for drones communications. It also asks the agencies to determine what spectrum would be appropriate for beyond visual line of sight operations.

Today, hobbyist drones mostly use unlicensed bands of spectrum, according to Jennifer Richter, a partner at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld who also sat on an FAA rulemaking committee.

Using unlicensed bands can be fine in some cases, but it might not be ideal for flights over people or critical assets. “These bands are not secure,” Richter said Oct. 4 at the Internet of Things Global Summit. “They can obviously be jammed and spoofed and are subject to interference.” The use of unlicensed spectrum will likely continue in some capacity for recreational use, she said.

One alternative is network cellular, which has a number of upsides, including the fact that infrastructure already exists and early studies have shown drones can communicate with the towers even when flying at heights of up to 2,000 feet, Richter said.

The Reauthorization Act gives the FAA, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the Federal Communications Commission 270 days to make a determination and send a report to Congress.

About the Author

Matt Leonard is a reporter/producer at GCN.

Before joining GCN, Leonard worked as a local reporter for The Smithfield Times in southeastern Virginia. In his time there he wrote about town council meetings, local crime and what to do if a beaver dam floods your back yard. Over the last few years, he has spent time at The Commonwealth Times, The Denver Post and WTVR-CBS 6. He is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, where he received the faculty award for print and online journalism.

Leonard can be contacted at or follow him on Twitter @Matt_Lnrd.

Click here for previous articles by Leonard.

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Reader Comments

Mon, Oct 8, 2018 Jon

Hmmm. Exactly what electronic protection does licensed spectrum have over unlicensed? None. Both can be jammed or spoofed. I like Jennifer but that’s a specious take.

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