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Sunday, December 10, 2023

Building a Robust Drone Security Framework for Safer UAS Integration into National Airspace System

We have witnessed a disturbing trend: an increase in the malicious use of drones, including delivery of weaponized payloads.

The United States is using every tool at its disposal to help combat the risks posed by non-compliant actors using unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) or drones.

The FAA’s primary role in the detection and mitigation of drones is to ensure the safety, security, and efficiency of the National Airspace System (NAS) as it pertains to both manned and unmanned aircraft. We are constantly working to welcome these beneficial new technologies while minimizing any impacts to our air transportation system or to the public. In April, the Biden-Harris administration released the Domestic Counter-UAS (C-UAS) National Action Plan, which is the first whole-of-government plan to address drone threats in the homeland. This plan would expand where we can protect against non-compliant drones, who can take action, and how we can do so lawfully and safely. We at the FAA were pleased to help develop and support the National Action Plan and C-UAS legislative proposal.

Drones have low barriers for entry into the NAS. They’re cheap to purchase and operate, have wide availability, and are easy to operate. As a result, drones represent the fastest-growing sector in aviation today. While the vast majority of drone operators are engaged in legitimate activity, the risk posed by a careless, clueless, or criminal actor is deeply concerning.

Drones offer tremendous benefits to our economy and society, but we must acknowledge that potential misuse of this technology poses unique security challenges. As drone technology evolves, the associated security threats and safety risks to the NAS also evolve. It is critical the federal government works in partnership with state, local, tribal and territorial (SLTT) government and critical infrastructure partners to stay ahead of that evolution. By taking deliberate and incremental steps, we can better support those entities with duties to protect against emerging UAS-based threats, thereby advancing the administration’s goal of fully integrating drones into the NAS.

In July, the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs held a hearing in support of safely expanding C-UAS authorities to help improve our defenses against the exploitation of drones for inappropriate or dangerous purposes. The FAA testified alongside colleagues from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of Justice (DOJ). The three agencies fielded questions from the committee on specific areas of the proposed legislation that would expand mitigation authority to additional federal agencies, SLTT law enforcement agencies, and owners and operators of certain critical infrastructure assets. The FAA’s chief role in the drone detection and mitigation realm is to support our security partners’ testing and eventual use of detection and mitigation systems, many of which use radio-frequency and other technologies that could potentially interfere with systems critical to safety of flight.

Over several years, we have witnessed a disturbing trend: an increase in the malicious use of drones, including delivery of weaponized payloads, delivery of contraband – such as narcotics –across borders and into correctional facilities, surveillance and reconnaissance of critical infrastructure and other national security-sensitive sites, cybercrime, and intentional disruption and harassment of law enforcement operations. While we used to face a mostly two-dimensional security threat that could be largely handled with physical security, camera surveillance, and administrative controls, we now face threats in the third dimension, often easily penetrable with affordable, easy-to-use, and readily available drones.

The FAA continues to work extensively with our security partners to build a robust drone security framework that will enable safe and secure drone integration into the NAS, and the National Action Plan is part of that. Further, mandatory registration, remote identification, critical infrastructure protection, and drone detection and mitigation testing are vital steps forward to ensure the safe and secure integration of these systems into our nation’s airspace.

The aviation industry is no stranger to challenges – and overcoming them. Working together across government and industry, we know we can address emerging drone-based threats so the United States will continue to lead the way in the full integration of drones, while offering the safest, most efficient, and most secure airspace system in the world.

Tonya D. Coultas
Tonya D. Coultas
Tonya D. Coultas is the Deputy Associate Administrator for Security and Hazardous Materials Safety at the Federal Aviation Administration. Ms. Coultas is responsible for implementing and maintaining the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) programs that support national security, aviation safety, and the National Airspace System (NAS). Ms. Coultas provides executive oversight and direction for the overall planning, coordination, and implementation of national security policies, plans, and national programs involving internal security, hazardous materials safety, investigations manned and unmanned systems, intelligence operations, emergency planning and operations, and workforce services. Ms. Coultas has over 30 years of combined federal executive, local, state, military, and international experience transforming national level programs providing authoritative executive level guidance in support of national and international-level security, defense, intelligence, safety, disaster response, and crisis management. Before joining the FAA, Ms. Coultas served as the Deputy Executive Assistant Administrator for Security Operations at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). There she led a workforce of over 53,000 employees worldwide. She was responsible for mitigating the dynamic threat against the global supply chain and domestic transportation systems through the implementation of an array of countermeasures, including the latest technology, passenger and cargo screening canines, explosives experts, and other specialized programs such as C-UAS, Insider Threat and cyber security. She oversaw the safety of an average 2.5 million passengers a day at over 440 federalized airports. Ms. Coultas also led surface security operations and implementation of new technology to improve security effectiveness across a surface network that encompasses freight railroads, passenger rail, mass transit, maritime, and pipelines. Ms. Coultas previously served as a Senior Executive for the DHS National Protection and Programs Directorate (now CISA), Office of Infrastructure Protection and for FEMA where she led the homeland security suite of grants managing over 25,000 multiyear open grants equating to $20 billion annually. She also served as the Executive Director for the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration at the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). Before joining DOT, Ms. Coultas worked for the Department of Defense as an Industrial Hygienist. Ms. Coultas is a retired Chief Master Sergeant from the Maryland Air National Guard where she served for 24 years. During her service she participated in Operation Desert Shield/Storm, Operations Noble Eagle and Enduring Freedom. She served with Headquarters United States European Command, the Joint Chiefs of Staff J-4, and the National Security Agency. Ms. Coultas holds a Masters in Business Administration and a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Toxicology.

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