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In US Airspace … You Really Should Sweat the Small Stuff!

Single Post Template - Magazine PRO Homeland Security TodayThe past couple of months have seen some positive developments for the commercial utilization of drones in the United States. Although the industries seeking to use them are not where they’d hoped to be by now as far as the integration of drones into American airspace, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has proposed its long-awaited “small drone” rules, allowing businesses to fly drones weighing less than fifty-five pounds, provided they meet certain requirements, such as flying only at daytime and keeping them within the visual line-of-sight of the operators, among others.

The FAA recently granted Amazon.com permission to proceed with conducting outdoor test flights for its incipient drone-delivery service, provided Amazon testing complies with limits similar to those in the FAA’s proposed rules.

From the homeland security perspective, however, it’s not all good news about drones. The average private individual can purchase drones for recreational purposes, and the equipment to build a rudimentary drone is widely available commercially – and, they could potentially be configured to carry out explosive or other attacks; or be used for surveillance purposes in aiding the planning and execution of an attack by other means.

Because such drones are small and fly at low altitudes, are portable and can be launched with relative ease, they present a sort of “less is more” challenge for national security apparatuses typically wired to deal with higher-profile aerial threats like hijacked commercial airliners or other large, manned aircraft.

The New York Police Department already has expressed its concern that drones could be used in terrorist attacks on New York City — a legitimate concern prompted in part by a drone landing on German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s podium during a 2013 speech in Germany. French authorities have yet to identify who is behind a series of unauthorized drone flights over landmarks and sensitive installations across France, and some officials in federal law enforcement have said drug cartels likely will start using drones to enhance their surveillance capabilities along border areas.

Editor’s note: See the Homeland Security Today report, Soaring to Risky New Heights: UAVs Buzz World’s Critical Infrastructures.

As if to underscore these threats, an errant drone operated by an intoxicated government employee made its way onto the White House lawn earlier this year.

The challenge of bad-guy drones in American air space needs to be tackled, both from a technology and organizational perspective. And very soon before it gets out of hand.

On the technology side, the military for some time has recognized the threat of enemy drones attacking our forces overseas, and is working on deploying counter-drone technologies such as directed energy (lasers), electronic warfare (to interfere with enemy drone communications) and counter-swarming (sending up our own “swarm” of drones to combat similar enemy drone swarms) to protect our warfighters.

While these exact technologies may or may not be appropriate for dealing with illicit drones here in the US – for example, in some circumstances it may be more desirable to force such a drone to land intact rather than force a mid-air explosion or crash, particularly in a major city – the military’s focus on counter-measures needs to be emulated by the agencies responsible for domestic security and the national airspace.

But, technology by itself will not be sufficient to address this looming threat. As some expert witnesses recently testified before the House Committee on Homeland Security Subcommittee on Oversight and Management Efficiency, at the institutional level there is need for a more coordinated organizational approach to drone threats.

In their respective testimonies, Maj. Gen. Frederick Roggero, USAF (Ret.), noted the need for federal agencies, under the leadership of a single designated entity, to craft and align federal policies on criminal, terrorist or other illicit domestic drone use, while International Association of Chiefs of Police President, University of Central Florida Police Chief Richard Beary, stressed the need for coordination between federal and state/local authorities to guide the latter on proper procedures and best practices for handling drone threats in their jurisdictions.

“Because the use and availability of UAS [is] in its infancy, the guidance around how law enforcement agencies should respond to and mitigate potential UAS threats is relatively nonexistent,” Beary warned the subcommittee, adding that, “The lack of clear guidance and best practices has led to confusion among the law enforcement community regarding about what law enforcement is allowed to do when they encounter a UAS. Tactical guidance needs to be provided on the proper measures to take.”

“Since these devices do not have a transponder device, registration number or other mechanism to track them, it makes them next to impossible to identify when they are flown, or who is flying them,” Beary told lawmakers. “What steps can we take to identify UAS and the operators of these devices? If we see a device being flown somewhere it should not be, can we bring it down? These questions only scratch the surface, and many of my fellow law enforcement officers are asking themselves these tough questions.”

“Without law enforcement knowing the proper procedures that need to occur,” Beary concluded, “it leaves us vulnerable and makes our primary job of keeping the public safe from harm more challenging …”

While the homeland security concerns should not be used as a means to delay FAA’s progress on integrating commercial drones into the National Air Space, we also cannot afford to shelve them while the FAA works towards the integration goal.

Rather, the technological, tactical and policy responses to the threat of malicious drones need to be pursued on a parallel track with commercial integration.

And we may not have much time.

Ben Lerner is a vice president with the Center for Security Policy in Washington, DC, where he is responsible for federal government relations and manages projects on national security law, unmanned systems, and nuclear deterrence. He has previously been a guest lecturer on the topic of unmanned systems at the US Army War College.

Editor’s note: To read more on the issues raised in this report, see the Homeland Security Today reports, Jihadists Find Drones of Strategic Cyber Importance, Defending Drones against Cyber Attacks, and, Drones at Risk to GPS Spoofing and Hacking.

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Homeland Security Todayhttp://www.hstoday.us
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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