In January 2015, a drone evaded detection by government radars and crashed on the White House lawn. About six months ago, the White House had to partially evacuate the same lawn after a drone allegedly entered a restricted area. Unlike in 2015, today the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of Justice (DoJ) have the legislative authority to detect and mitigate these types of drone threats—at least for now. That authority, originally scheduled to sunset in October but temporarily extended, hangs in the balance. Unless Congress acts fast, our nation’s skies may become unprotected.
And that’s a problem.
Without explicit authorization, use of most technologies to detect and mitigate drones is illegal in the United States. A raft of federal criminal statutes, never intended to keep our government officials from protecting us, limit their options and ability to act.
Yet as authority potentially wanes, drones fill our skies. As of 2023, the FAA has logged in 855,860 registered drones in the United States. Federal law requires that any small drone (one that weighs more than half a pound and less than 55 pounds) be registered and marked with its registration number, regardless of its purpose or intended use. While most of the pilots operating these drones do so responsibly, some still choose to remain ignorant of the rules, decide not to follow them or, worst case, desire to do actual harm.
Take, for example, a drone’s near-miss of a Delta flight filled with passengers inbound to Orlando International last summer. That drone flew within 8 feet of the commercial plane’s windshield, in airspace 2,000 feet above the airport. Sadly, this is not a one-off incident.
Crewed aircraft pilots regularly report drone sightings. The FAA receives more than 100 such reports each month, a dramatic increase over the past two years. In that same time period, at least 33 full or partial suspensions of airport operations have occurred because drones entered flight paths. During the past year, TSA says they identified almost 2,000 drones around airports. Pilots had to take evasive action in 63 of those instances.
Then there’s the potential threat drones pose to large crowds of people. Last fall, unauthorized drones caused delays in a Dodger-Padres playoff game and a Seattle Seahawks and Atlanta Falcons football game. These are also not isolated incidents. Last season, the National Football League reported more than 1,400 illegal drone flights over stadiums. Government officials have already told the Senate that it’s “only a matter of time” before a drone attacks a mass gathering in this country.
Add to this growing list of drone threats are reported surreptitious flights around critical infrastructure, drone cross-border and domestic prison smuggling operations and incursions aimed at VIPs both at events and in transit. All of this is already happening right here, right now.
What’s more troubling, and perhaps an indicator of things to come, is the extensive use of weaponized commercial drones overseas. For years, small drones have been the go-to for insurgents in the Middle East. In 2021, Iranian-backed Houthi rebels used drones to target civilian aircraft at Saudi Arabia’s Abha airport. Last October, Russia unleashed over 30 drone attacks on Ukraine in a two-day period. The use of small, commercial, off-the-shelf drones is so pervasive in the Russia-Ukraine war that some commentators refer to it as “the first real drone war.” Bad actors often use lessons learned from such successful attacks to export terror to other places, including to the U.S.
So, what’s the hold up on letting our officials continue to protect us? It cannot be the lack of a problem. Nor can it be the lack of a solution. Authorized federal law enforcement agencies, including the DHS and DoJ, whose ability to employ detection, identification, tracking and mitigation tech now hangs by a thread, have been successfully using it for upward of five years. The tech exists, as do the procedures to employ it in a manner that protects others, safeguards privacy, and upholds civil liberties.
Admittedly, there is no one-size fits all approach to counter drones. Drone detection and identification technology should aid law enforcement in determining a drone’s unique identifiers (e.g., make, model and serial number), relevant locational data and communication attributes. Based on all this and other information, including compiled lists of known, friendly and authorized drones, these systems can assist operators to effectively distinguish between authorized and unauthorized drones in any given area. Authorized agencies can then employ countermeasures. This drone mitigation technology is also scenario dependent. Countermeasures from the military realm, such as jamming or kinetic technologies, may not be suitable for civilian, urban, or sensitive environments, as they may cause operational disruption or risk collateral damage.
Even so, precision and cyber-based solutions, such as D-Fend Solutions‘ EnforceAir, which can safely take over rogue drones and land them in a predefined zone with pinpoint accuracy, can safely work in these situations, and have been proven with hundreds of deployments globally. For example, in 2021, the cyber counter-drone technology helped safeguard the pope and more than 60,000 worshippers, bishops, and priests attending a holy mass from a rogue do-it-yourself drone.
Given the extent of drone users in the U.S., including the careless, clueless, criminal, and potential combatant actors among them, federal agencies must remain enabled to protect us and local law enforcement must be allowed to take action as well.
Local law enforcement will always respond first to any incident, including ones involving drones. Yet they don’t have the authority to detect drones, let alone to mitigate them.
The DHS and DoJ cannot be everywhere. In the past four years, DHS could only cover .05 percent of the more than 121,000 events requiring counter-drone protection.
Last year, Congress proposed a couple of relevant bills to rectify this mismatch, including the Safeguarding the Homeland From the Threats Posed by Unmanned Aircraft Systems Act of 2022. Not only would it have extended and enhanced DHS and DoJ counter-drone authorities, but it would also have enabled state, local, tribal, and territorial law enforcement, as well as owners and operators of critical infrastructure, to detect these threats. Importantly, it would additionally have created a limited pilot program for up to 12 state and local law enforcement entities annually to additionally engage in mitigation, contingent on attending federally run training, passing a vetting process, and implementing federal-like operational and privacy rules. This seems to be an abundantly reasonable approach that, in an otherwise contentious legislature, has garnered bi-partisan support. But it died. Why?
As an advocate and educator for the drone industry, from where I sit, the counter-drone value proposition is a no brainer. The safety case has also been proven. The drone industry can only thrive when the skies are clear of the outliers who fail to operate safely. Congress needs to put the laws in place that will allow us to move forward.
Dawn M.K. Zoldi (Colonel, USAF, retired) is a licensed attorney with 28 years of combined active duty military and federal civil service to the U.S. Air Force. She is the CEO & Founder of P3 Tech Consulting and an internationally recognized expert on emerging technology law and policy.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.
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