Should the public be concerned about the threat of unauthorized drone use at large outdoor events, like sports venues, and other large infrastructure locations? Unfortunately, the short answer is ‘yes’.
Drone use has exploded in recent years. The number of drones being flown in the U.S. now exceeds 2.5 million. Although most instances of unauthorized drone incursions at or near large outdoor events are from non-malicious operators, there have been instances where bad actor drone operators purposely caused harm or interfered with the event. Regardless of intent, the flying of unauthorized drones overhead presents a significant security risk for event goers in terms of their safety. Drone operators do make mistakes and drones do malfunction. Both can cause severe injuries if they were to hit a spectator. Taking it one step further, if drones were used for nefarious reasons, they could easily drop harmful substances such as explosive devices on event goers.
In 2018, the Preventing Emerging Threats Act was passed by Congress to provide the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) with the necessary tools to effectively counter drones or Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS). That bill is set to expire next month. Last month, the Safeguarding the Homeland from the Threats Posed by Unmanned Aircraft Systems Act was advanced by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and awaits the full Senate for consideration. This bill, which was introduced by U.S. Senators Peters, Hassan, Johnson, and Sinema, would renew the legislation passed in 2018 and further expand its authorities by allowing state and local law enforcement to protect communities from drone threats.
But does this legislation go far enough? How much would this help in addressing the threat landscape, specifically when it comes to scenarios where federal officials aren’t protecting a site or event? The bill definitely enhances the capabilities of federal, state, and local governments to protect critical infrastructure by detecting and in some cases interdicting drones that pose a threat.
The bill provides an opportunity for the Federal Government to carry out a pilot program to evaluate the potential benefits of State, local, Tribal, and territorial law enforcement agencies taking actions that are necessary to mitigate a credible threat. If the pilot program is successful, it could expand the federal government’s coverage or ‘security umbrella’ against unauthorized drone use. In addition to the benefit of having different levels of government working together, expanding the ‘security umbrella’ will also provide more of a deterrence factor for bad actors as well as non-malicious drone operators.
What more needs to be done to adequately protect sites like outdoor sporting venues from drones? Before you can mitigate drone threats at stadiums and other critical infrastructure locations, you need to have the ability to accurately detect a drone as well as have the ability to accurately assess the risk. You have to determine, through threat assessment techniques, if the identified drone is being operated by someone without malicious intent, such as a reckless neighborhood kid, or a bad actor. We can’t afford to have false positives or any questions before taking steps to mitigate the threat. Once these factors are determined, the appropriate tiered mitigation response can be deployed based on the overall facility’s risk profile. For example, defending an outdoor arena from drones most likely could use a Tier 1 mitigation response such as enabling the authorities to take over the controls of the unauthorized drone through a Radio Frequency (RF) Takeover. This is the safest form of mitigation. From there, if needed, authorities could escalate to a Tier 2 response, such as the use of RF jamming or a Tier 3 response, which might involve the use of projectiles, such as another drone, to take down the unauthorized drone.
Are there any concerns about using UAS mitigation technology around sites like outdoor sporting venues? If passed, the legislation would significantly improve the homeland’s ability to defend against the unauthorized use of drones at or near stadiums and critical infrastructure. The bill however doesn’t go far enough when it comes to supporting drone mitigation companies in their efforts to conduct research and development (R&D) testing of their equipment domestically. There is currently no avenue for companies to test most forms of mitigation without paying tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars per day to military bases or showing up at official demonstration events. The government needs to give companies access to designated military installations to conduct quarterly scientific R&D testing without potential customers present. As it stands today, this is a national security risk because foreign drone mitigation companies can innovate faster as a result of their governments’ streamlined R&D testing processes. Unfortunately, U.S. companies,have to ship their equipment abroad, perform the testing, and then ship the equipment back in a condition ready for demonstrations before government officials.
Another pressing concern is that only one law enforcement agency can be trained each month over a five-year period, limiting the total number of agencies with counter-drone training to 60. Considering the number of stadiums and critical infrastructure locations there are around the country, that number doesn’t even scratch the true need.
In summary, the renewal and expansion of authorities of the Safeguarding the Homeland from the Threats Posed by Unmanned Aircraft Systems Act provides our national security agencies with some of the tools required to mitigate the serious threats posed by UAS. But more is needed and more is needed now. To ensure that drones don’t disrupt or harm our way of life, we must provide federal, state, and local authorities with the complete set of tools to mitigate drone threats while maintaining the civil rights and liberties of responsible unmanned aircraft operators.