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Saturday, February 4, 2023

PERSPECTIVE: What Will It Take to Adequately Counter the UAS Threat?

Drones have been found or flown near critical infrastructure, the power grid, bulk oil plants and nuclear power plants.

In the book “Predictable Surprises: The Disasters You Should Have Seen Coming and How to Prevent Them,” the main premise is that many of the disasters that we have faced should not have come as surprises. The situation that is looming is very much the same with uncrewed aircraft systems (UAS), commonly known as drones in the United States.

Drones have already begun to raise concern in this country in a number of ways. Drones have been used by cartels to transport drugs, do reconnaissance on Border Patrol agents and deliver explosives to rival cartels.

In numerous prisons worldwide, drones have been used to drop contraband of drugs, weapons and cigarettes directly into prison courtyards, often leading to prison unrest to the point of becoming riotous. In isolated cases, drones have been used to aid in a prisoner escape.

Since 2017, the NFL has experienced numerous drone incursions, fortunately with dropped pamphlets. While not dangerous in these cases, the demonstrated exposure is very real. More recently, drone incursions have impacted and in some cases interrupted NCAA, NFL, MLB, NASCAR and other large mass gathering events. The significant problem is that with large public assembly events much chaos can be achieved with something as simple as a baby powder drop that is perceived as something more hazardous. Regardless of harmful content or not, it creates a public safety decontamination nightmare. At the next level, the potential for a chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear or explosive (CBRNE) attack has the potential for mass casualty, potential stampede and mass hysteria that will ripple throughout the country.

In the U.S., drones have been found or flown near critical infrastructure, the power grid, bulk oil plants and nuclear power plants. So far, most of these incursions have involved three of the four Cs (careless, clueless, curious) but have not been criminal (the fourth C) in nature. On the criminal front, drones are being used more frequently by criminal elements to interfere with law enforcement drones and, as previously mentioned, in prisons.

Drone incursions have also created numerous disruptions to major airports in the U.S. and abroad. Fortunately, none have had serious consequences to date.

Our military forces operating abroad have shared intel on how commercial drones (that can and are being purchased in the U.S.) are now being used in warfare operations overseas. The war in Ukraine has demonstrated the power of commercial drones and these drones are believed to significantly help change the balance of power.

Are you getting the picture? PREDICTABLE SURPRISES.

There are two aspects of counter UAS: detection and mitigation. Presently there are 21 or more laws, rules or regulations that prevent a clear path to both, which means that it is impossible to do either with the exception of those designated federal agencies.

The potential of danger is expanded by a significant number of commercial and recreational remote pilots who do not adhere to FAA rules and regulations. This is validated by a Small Unmanned Aircraft System (sUAS) Traffic Analysis (A11L.UAS.91): Initial Annual Report completed for the FAA’S ASSURE Research Program. While this sampling report gives some idea of potential dangerous UAS flights that exceed flight regulation limitations, rules, regulations and laws from the FCC and FAA create confusion as to the legality of conducting detection. Congress has said that before CUAS can move forward there needs to be clear justification of the problem. Yet Congress refuses to enact even basic legislation that will clear the way to conduct basic monitoring/detection of UAS flights legally. Regardless of mitigation or taking down a drone, the ability to monitor and detect is essential to understand the new complexities of the present national airspace and to address the issues and hazards identified. Ignoring this is simply like sticking heads in the sand.

On April 25, the White House released The Domestic Counter-Unmanned Aircraft Systems National Action Plan to move CUAS forward. Following this release, bipartisan legislation – the Safeguarding the Homeland from the Threats Posed by Unmanned Aircraft Systems Act – was introduced by Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Gary Peters (D-Mich.) and former chairman Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) in July to move the proposed National Action Plan forward. “The threats posed by malicious unmanned aircraft are too great to ignore,” Johnson said in a statement. “This bill will increase our ability to fight the growing threat of criminal drone activity across the country. It is paramount that our national security agencies have the tools they need to mitigate the serious threats posed by UAS. I hope my colleagues move quickly to support this bill that will further our national security.”

Some suggest that the new FAA Remote ID rule will help to resolve this issue. However, the Remote ID rule requires registration of drones. It will help to identify the clueless, careless and curious but it is not likely that bad actors with nefarious intentions will register their drone.

To date it appears that the legislation has stalled, even on the basic ability to monitor and detect. One of the congressional committees stated that more studies are needed before moving forward.

Back to the premise of “Predictable Surprises: The Disasters You Should Have Seen and How to Prevent Them”: this requires action or we are destined to experience the disasters that could have been prevented. So when (not if) a devastating attack initiated with a drone occurs, remember it was a predictable surprise and a disaster that we knew how to prevent.


The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email Editor@Hstoday.us.

Charles Werner
Charles Werner is the retired Charlottesville fire chief and 46 year public safety veteran. After retirement, Charles worked with the Virginia Department of Emergency Management for 2 years as senior advisor/acting deputy state coordinator. Charles served in numerous leadership roles at the local, state, national levels on public safety initiatives. Presently serves as Director-DRONERESPONDERS Public Safety Alliance, Chair-National Council on Public Safety UAS, BOD - Airborne International Response Team, and appointed by Virginia Governor Northam to serve on the Secure & Resilient Commonwealth Panel and serve as Public Safety UAS Sub Panel Chair. Charles also serves on the International Association of Fire Chiefs Technology Council. In 2004, he served two years as a reserve deputy sheriff with Albemarle County. Chief Werner is a FAA certificated Remote Pilot. Chief Werner also serves on the Virginia Center for Innovative Technologies Advisory Board. Charles is a contributing editor to Firehouse Magazine, Crisis Response Journal and an author with 150+ internationally published articles and serves as a contributor to numerous other public safety publications. Chief Werner has numerous commendations, three Virginia Governor’s Awards of Excellence, recognized as the National Career Fire Chief Award in 2008 and Homeland Security Today’s Person of the Year in 2018.

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