Urgent Need for Federal Role in Drone Detection at Airports

Most airports in the United States and Canada do not have a comprehensive plan to deal with errant unmanned aircraft systems (UAS)—whether careless, clueless, or criminal. Further, most airports do not have a plan for integrating compliant UAS operations either.

The Blue Ribbon Task Force on UAS Mitigation at Airports has released its report on UAS integration, detection, identification, and mitigation in and around airports. The Task Force is chaired by former Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Administrator, Michael Huerta, and CEO of Los Angeles World Airports, Deborah Flint.

The Task Force, jointly commissioned in April 2019 by Airports Council International-North America (ACI-NA) and the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), recommends the U.S. Congress appropriate more funds to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the Canadian Cabinet appropriate more targeted funds to Transport Canada, and both legislative bodies extend UAS interdiction authority to trained state and local law enforcement agencies.

The Task Force outlined policy recommendations in July, which urged federal aviation agencies to move forward with a remote identification rule. The new report, released October 2, builds on this advice and identifies an unacceptable security gap at many airports across the U.S. and Canada, with no federal role in UAS detection and often no resources for an airport role to engage in UAS detection operations.

The Task Force takes the position that airports should not be burdened with undertaking UAS detection operations but instead, as with many other operations at airports, such as airport security, UAS detection should be a shared responsibility between airports and federal governments.

It calls for lawmakers to extend authority to engage in UAS interdiction—kinetic or electronic—to trained law enforcement officials tasked with safeguarding airports and the immediate surrounding areas. The Task Force adds that the deputation of counter-UAS authority to these officials should begin with a pilot program overseen by the Department of Justice (DOJ) in consultation with the Department of Homeland Security, in the U.S., and DOJ and Public Safety in Canada (PSC), to establish protocols, training, and practice exercises.

Some airports are already acquiring technology to detect UAS, following the high-profile incursions at London’s Gatwick Airport in December 2018 which resulted in flights being grounded for more than 24 hours creating largescale disruptions across Europe.

However, there are currently no standards for UAS detection systems. The Task Force says there is an urgent need for the FAA and Transport Canada to establish standards. Having standards in place is important both as a verification of the technology and as a prerequisite for Airport Improvement Program (AIP) eligibility for UAS detection and mitigation systems as authorized in the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018.

The report includes feedback on the U.S. Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) draft Tactical Response Plan (TRP) for UAS incursions at airports. With the U.S. Congress set to receive recommendations on these key items from the Executive Branch, the Task Force hopes its recommendations will serve as a valuable resource for Congress and the federal agencies studying this issue. However, the Task Force says the TRP exacerbates the fundamental problem of assigning responsibilities to airport operators that they have no authority (and insufficient resources) to carry out.

The Task Force has developed guiding principles for airports seeking to write critically important UAS plans and recommends ways to drill them just as airports would other emergency procedures. These include procedural considerations, incident reporting guidance, and collaborative development. To accompany these, the October 2 report includes a UAS response plan template.

ACI-NA President and CEO, Kevin Burke, lauded the Task Force’s airport playbook. “When an unauthorized UAS is spotted on an approach pathway or over a runway, what is an airport to do? The playbook put forward by the Task Force represents a necessary component to determining the threat level, the appropriate responses, and ensuring there is proper communication with all relevant stakeholders in a timely fashion. This will be an essential tool for airports to develop or refine their response protocols,” he said.

Just as the Task Force released its report, the Ottawa Macdonald-Cartier International Airport Authority announced that it has partnered with Nav Canada and QinetiQ Canada to trial the company’s Obsidian Counter UAS System at the airport. Mark Laroche, president and CEO of the Ottawa Macdonald-Cartier International Airport Authority, and Neil Wilson, CEO of Nav Canada are members of the Task Force.

The Airport Authority, Nav Canada and QinetiQ will be working in cooperation to facilitate the installation and employment of the Obsidian micro-Doppler radar unit with the goal of determining the feasibility of the system to function compatibly in a civilian airport environment.

Several objectives for the trial have been identified, including evaluating the accurate and timely detection/early warning of drones or remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS); assessing the effective utilization of the system to initiate an appropriate response to drone/RPAS detection between the Airport Authority and Nav Canada; and assessing system compatibility in an international airport environment where other partner systems could cause interference.

The increase in UAS sightings at airports, airspace disruptions, and threats of UAS use by activist groups illustrate a need for change in how responsible authorities respond. A lack of legal framework, understanding of technology, or authority should not be the reasons airports fail to prevent a serious UAS event.

Download the Task Force’s full report here

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Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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