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Federal Guidance Needed to Address Security Concerns Surrounding Proliferation of Small Drones

A number of recent security incidents surrounding the proliferation of small unmanned aerial systems (UAS) has raised concerns over the challenge of how law enforcement should respond to and mitigate potential UAS threats in light of the fact that little to no guidance exists on proper response procedures.

The House Committee on Homeland Security’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Management Efficiency held a hearing Wednesday to examine possible solutions for homeland security and law enforcement to deal with the challenges that arise from opening American airspace to drones.

“The proliferation of small unmanned aerial systems in the US is coming. But are we ready to deal with the threats that could come with this emerging technology?” said subcommittee chairman Scott Perry (R-Pa). “Recent incidents like the quadcopter that crashed at the White House and drones flying over Paris landmarks raise concerns.”

Over the past several months, a number of security incidents involving drones occurred, raising questions about how law enforcement should respond to UAS threats. In January, a drone crashed on White House grounds, triggering a lockdown of the White House and surrounding buildings until Secret Service could ascertain the nature of the threat.

Last year, the FBI arrested 27-year-old El Mehdi Semlali Fahti for plotting to fly bombs on drone-like devices into Harvard University and a federal building. Fahti, a Moroccan national on an expired visa, pleaded guilty to perjury and immigration charges in connection with a fraudulent asylum application. Prosecutors said Fahti’s guilty plea and willingness to be deported after he serves his two-year prison sentence helped him avoid a potential terrorism charge.

Moreover, in 2013 in Germany, a drone flew toward German Chancellor Angela Merkel while she was delivering a speech and hovered directly in front of her podium. And last month, drones were spotted hovering over sensitive and well-known areas of Paris, including the Eifel Tower, the Bastille, Place de la Concorde, Les Invalides and the US Embassy.

UAS security incidents are only going to become more prevalent as national airspace becomes open to drones. Last month, Homeland Security Today reported that amid mounting concerns the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) slow pace in developing a plan to open the skies to commercial drones has prevented the drone industry from taking off, the FAA finally proposed a framework of regulations that would allow routine use of certain small UAS in today’s aviation system.

As drone use becomes more widespread, US authorities are faced with the difficult question of how to safeguard against malicious actors successfully using this technology for illegal means.

Homeland Security Today reported in November that the New York Police Department (NYPD) began developing a strategy to counter the rising threat of drones in the hands of terrorists. Aside from terrorist concerns, the NYPD also expressedconcerns about drones as a safety hazard after a small drone nearly collided with an NYPD helicopter over the George Washington Bridge last year.

“Drones are out there flying around; people think that they’re a toy or a model; they’re not,” said Deputy Inspector Jimmy Coan, commanding officer of the NYPD aviation unit. “They’re another aircraft flying in the national airspace system, and they create a significant safety hazard.”

Other agencies have also attempted to prepare for these potential threats, including the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) National Protection and Programs Directorate and Science and Technology Directorate. However, Perry stressed the need to do more and, in particular, for DHS to develop a cohesive strategy to better respond when a small UAS is used for illegal activity.

“Lone wolf terrorists, drug smugglers, and foreign spies don’t care about FAA rules. DHS must help protect against these bad actors perverting this technology for their objectives,” Perry said.

The Challenge: Little guidance for countering UAS threats

The FAA’s proposed regulations are paving the way for widespread drone use by expanding small UAS operations to include crop monitoring/inspection, research and development, educational/academic uses, power-line/pipeline inspection in hilly or mountainous terrain, antenna inspections, aiding certain rescue operations such as locating snow avalanche victims, bridge inspections, aerial photography and wildlife nesting area evaluations.

However, the integration of drones into the national airspace raises serious concerns. UAS can pose a grave threat to the public and law enforcement. Since almost anyone can purchase a drone, there is a danger that the average citizen will not operate the drone properly.

“The concerns out there are real,” said Chief Richard Beary, President of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. “There is nothing to stop the criminal element from purchasing a UAS and using it to cause localized or catastrophic damage.”

Beary added, “If a UAS were to drop something as simple as a smoke bomb down on a theme park or during a football game, think of the panic that could ensue. These devices can also be used to fly over sensitive areas and gather information for a planned attack; to disperse a chemical/radiological agent; and to conduct an explosive attack.”

Despite the potentially damaging effects these devices can have, there is a lack of clear guidance on how law enforcement should respond to threats involving UAS, which has led to confusion over how law enforcement should be responding when they encounter a small drone.

Aware that funding is tight, Beary recommended a number of simple measures to provide law enforcement with guidance on the proper procedure for mitigating UAS threats. For example, DHS could create a training video outlining proper response tactics for law enforcement.

Federal agency partners also need to work together on quick reference guides for responding to a number of drone scenarios. For example, the guide could provide a how-to checklist for what law enforcement should do when encountering a crashed drone.

Beary also recommended Congress consider legislation to tighten the use of UAS for recreational use and possibly for commercial use as well.

“Protecting our citizens is not only the job of law enforcement, it is also the job of the federal government,” Beary said. “What we have learned in recent years, particularly post-911, is that we work best as a team. Law enforcement needs the assistance of its federal partners, and this assistance needs to first come in the form of guidance so we are better equipped to handle prevention and response to UAS threats.”

Roadmap towards a solution

UAS technology is outpacing policy, according to Maj. Gen. Frederick Roggero, (USAF-Ret.), president and chief executive officer of Resilient Solutions, Ltd.

“With lastweek’s announcement by the Secret Service that the White House grounds would be used to conduct a series of exercises involving drones, it is clear the United States is not fully ready to deal with the threats that could come from this emerging technology today,” said Roggero said.

Roggero recommended interagency cooperation to draft an overarching strategy and supporting policies to deal with drones. In crafting a strategy, agencies should look to their international partners work with allies and international partners to discover “lessons learned” and best practices for solutions to the counter-drone issue.

“By capitalizing on ‘best practices’ already discovered by our international allies, such as the United Kingdom, we could be ready to deal with today’s threats immediately, while we draft the correct policies and spin up US industries and laboratories to rapidly explore ways to counter tomorrow’s drones and their unique, new, threats,” Roggero said.

In addition, law enforcement needs to be trained on identifying potential threats and the legal use of drones, conduct a campaign to educate the public on safe use of drones, establish and fund research to develop counter-drone technologies and acquire proven technical solutions to protect critical infrastructure and personnel.

“The US government must be able to protect its sensitive critical infrastructure, personnel and citizens from the malicious use of small drones, while preserving the best aspects of using small UAS’s commercially and recreationally,” Roggero said. “There will be a balancing act as we deter, mitigate and defeat these types of security threats while preserving the benefits that UAS’s bring.”

Four key issues Congress should observe in drafting UAS legislation

Before expending funds on mitigation technologies, Dr. Gregory S. McNeal, associate professor at the Pepperdine University School of Law, testified that Congress must remain cognizant of four key issues when drafting legislation and overseeing the activities of DHS.

First, Congress must distinguish between possible threats and probable threats while being careful not to fall victim to the sensationalism that often characterizes the topic of drones. McNeal emphasized Congress should pay attention to the full range of threats associated with drones and not just the worst-case scenarios.

“Congress must ensure that agencies do not fall victim to the sensationalism that drives worst-case scenario based planning,” McNeal said. “Such an approach to risk management can justify enormous expenditures, no matter how unlikely the prospects are that the dire event will take place.”

Second, agencies should conduct risk assessments based on the probability of a successful attack and the magnitude of losses that might be sustained in such an attack. Since every possible threat cannot be prevented, conducting a risk assessment allows agencies to make hard choices with limited resources.

Agencies can base their risk assessments based on the following formula: Risk = (probability of a successful attack) X (losses sustained in the successful attack).

McNeal said, “Taken together, the probability of a successful attack employing a drone multiplied by the losses sustained in the successful attack will tell agencies what the risk from drones is. From there agencies, guided by Congress, can determine whether the risk is acceptable.”

Third, in addition to conducting a risk assessment, agencies should conduct a formal cost-benefit analysis using best practices. McNeal suggested using the following calculation: Benefit of a security measure = (probability of a successful attack) x (losses sustained in the successful attack) x (reduction in risk generated by the security measure).

Finally, Congress should direct that a specific individual or office within DHS assume responsibility for generating threat assessments. Additionally, Congress may want to request the support of DHS Centers of Excellence in conducting terrorism risk analyses.

“The emergence of unmanned aerial vehicles in domestic skies raises understandable concerns that may require employment of mitigation technologies,” McNeal concluded. “However, before any funds are expended on such technologies, DHS should engage in a comprehensive risk assessment to identify the probability, magnitude of harm, benefits of security measures, and cost of those measures.”

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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