PERSPECTIVE: Steps Government, Industry Can Take to Keep Us Safer from Malicious Drones

The benefits of commercial drones (unmanned aircraft systems or “UAS”) are significant, and exciting. Drones are improving lives – from disaster response to medical deliveries to infrastructure inspection and so much more. In the United States and abroad, drones are being used every day to find missing hikers, enhance economic productivity, and support public safety and law enforcement operations.

But with increasing numbers of drones filling our skies, it is also true that security concerns have escalated. Like many new technologies, the same features that make drones powerful commercial and public safety tools, including their small size, maneuverability, affordability, and the ability to carry various types of payloads, also raise safety and security concerns when used by careless, clueless or criminal actors.

Recent events, both at home and abroad, have highlighted the need to protect against potential public safety and homeland security threats posed by drones. The NFL has suffered multiple incidents of drones dropping political leaflets, and during last year’s Super Bowl the restricted airspace in downtown Atlanta was “inundated” with an alarming number of drones. Last year, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro survived an assassination attempt that involved the use of two drones laden with explosives, and in December a deliberate drone incursion wreaked havoc on Gatwick Airport, the United Kingdom’s second-busiest airport, leading to the cancellation of more than a thousand flights over a 33-hour period, reportedly causing at least $64 million in immediate damages.

DHS’ Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) has been warning the critical infrastructure community of the threats posed by rogue drones and is working with stakeholders at the industry and community levels to be prepared for, among other critical threats, potential attacks from above with drones.

These very serious incidents make clear that we can only truly unleash the potential of the commercial drone industry if we remedy the very real security concerns. There are many excellent technological options available in the marketplace now. Designed correctly, the policy environment can unleash technologies such as these to enhance security and unlock innovation. However, these technologies currently face legal and policy challenges in our country.

What can the federal government do now to ensure policy is contemporaneous with the state of technology?

First, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), in coordination with the national security agencies, must set some basic “rules of the road” for all drone operators by requiring a virtual drone license plate. Drone operations near, in, and around our nation’s most sensitive airspace (and more complex drone operations in urban areas) should require additional trusted and secure remote identification to prevent bad actors from impersonating, forging or modifying a remote identification signal. The technology to enable secure remote identification is available right now, and it is essential that the FAA adopt a comprehensive remote identification framework swiftly. While Congress mandated in the FAA Extension, Safety and Security Act of 2016 that the FAA establish small UAS remote identification standards by July 2018, the publication of a proposed remote identification framework has been delayed and a proposed rule is not expected until the end of 2019 at the earliest.

Second, Congress needs to act. There is a legal pathway forward for explicitly authorizing the safe and responsible deployment of counter-UAS technology. In 2017, Congress authorized the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy to use counter-UAS equipment to protect certain facilities and assets in the United States, and this authority was further extended to the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice in 2018.[1] While the counter-UAS authorities granted to these federal agencies represent a positive step toward addressing threats posed by unlawful drone use, in practice these federal agencies lack the resources necessary to protect all sensitive areas from rogue drone threats.

Congress must therefore take two steps: First, provide these agencies with the resources necessary to implement its authorizing legislation properly. Second, expand certain counter-UAS authorities to selected state and local law enforcement agencies tasked with protecting sensitive areas from rogue drone threats, potentially including airports, stadium sporting events, amusement parks, public gatherings, and other civil infrastructure sites. These are just a few actions policymakers can take now in order to move drone integration forward in a way that is safe and secure.

Finally, the commercial drone and security industries must recognize that the federal government cannot solve all of these important policy issues on its own. It is essential that industry stays engaged on drone safety and security issues. As part of this engagement, the industry must collaborate with and work to educate policymakers at all levels of government about the capabilities of detection and counter-drone technology. Together, we can tackle drone security and safety challenges while unleashing innovation.

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 HSTodayMag@gtscoalition.com. Our editorial guidelines can be found here.

[1] National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017 (P.L. 114-328). DoD’s authority was further clarified in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018 (P.L. 115-91).

Luke Fox is Founder and CEO of WhiteFox, a global leader in drone airspace security. He is also a subject matter expert on UAS and a member of Infraguard for the FBI in Southern California. Prior to WhiteFox, Luke successfully built and operated cyber-forensics and high-performance drone manufacturing companies where he recognized that, in the right hands, drones have the power to change the world so long as they fly safely and legally. His voluntary efforts include Foster Youth Advocacy, and in that capacity he was invited to the White House in May 2016 to work with national policy leaders, other technologists, and those with direct experience in child welfare, to identify ways to improve the national foster care system through the use of technology.

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