Senator Gary Peters (D-MI), Chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, and Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) have introduced bipartisan legislation to significantly enhance the United State’s ability to counter the threat posed by unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), commonly known as drones. The bill would renew and expand existing authorities – which are set to expire in October – that provide the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) with necessary tools to effectively counter UAS. The legislation comes after a hearing that Peters convened with senior federal officials on how government agencies are working to combat this evolving threat. Peters and Johnson were joined by U.S. Senators Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and Maggie Hassan (D-NH) to introduce the bill.
The commercial market for UAS is rapidly expanding due to the increased accessibility of these new technologies. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) estimates that by 2024 about 2.3 million UAS will be registered to fly in U.S. airspace. The increasing numbers of registered UAS create a higher risk of both unintentional disasters and malicious activity from foreign adversaries or criminal organizations that seek to weaponize drones or engage in illegal activities, such as trafficking illicit drugs across U.S. borders, or even launching a cyber attack. Drone incursions near airports have become a regular occurrence, and while most are the result of carelessness rather than malintent, they can still cause widespread disruption and endanger infrastructure and lives.
Recent incidents have demonstrated the threat posed by UAS. On July 21, flights were stopped for a short time at Reagan Washington National Airport after a drone sighting was reported. The FAA immediately notified law enforcement but it is not known whether the UAS or the operator were located. The area around the airport and for the wider Washington, D.C. region already has strict rules regarding drones and requires specific FAA authorization.
Operations were also put on hold at Newark Liberty International Airport in 2019, following a drone sighting. And in 2017, a privately operated UAS in Brooklyn, New York, was intentionally flown beyond the operator’s line of sight and collided with a U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter patrolling a temporary no-fly zone around New York City.
In April, President Biden announced the first whole-of-government plan to address drone threats and the the first recommendation was to enact a new legislative proposal to expand the set of tools and actors who can protect against UAS by reauthorizing and expanding existing counter‑UAS authorities for DHS, DOJ and other federal agencies. The plan also highlighted the need to expand drone detection authorities for state, local, territorial and tribal law enforcement agencies and critical infrastructure owners and operators.
The Safeguarding the Homeland from the Threats Posed by Unmanned Aircraft Systems Act would reauthorize DHS and DOJ’s current authorities to counter UAS threats provided by the Preventing Emerging Threats Act of 2018. The bill would also authorize the Transportation Security Administration to proactively protect transportation infrastructure from drone threats as well as authorizing DHS and DOJ to use existing authorities to protect critical infrastructure. It would also allow state and local law enforcement and critical infrastructure owners and operators to use drone detection technology that has been approved by DHS. The bill creates a pilot program that will encourage coordination between state and local and federal law enforcement to mitigate UAS threats. Finally, the legislation requires DHS to develop a database of security-related UAS incidents that occur inside the United States.
“As the market for unmanned aircraft systems continues to expand – there is an increasing risk that drones operated by reckless or nefarious individuals could be used to threaten aircraft, airports, critical infrastructure, and high-profile events. The federal government must be prepared to tackle this issue head on and protect our country from this evolving threat,” said Senator Peters. “This commonsense, bipartisan bill will bolster federal efforts to prevent unmanned aircraft systems from disrupting or harming lives and livelihoods, ensure federal agencies working to combat these threats are more accountable to the public, and protect the civil rights and liberties of responsible drone owners.”
“The threats posed by malicious unmanned aircraft are too great to ignore,” said Senator Johnson. “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.”
“We’re ensuring government keeps the tools it needs to stop drones from being used to conduct attacks, espionage, and other illicit activities,” said Senator Sinema. “By reauthorizing and making common sense reforms to our ability to detect and interdict drones posing a threat to sensitive facilities, we will strengthen our border security and ensure Arizona’s airports are kept safe and secure.”
“We have increasingly seen the threat posed by drones used by transnational criminal organizations for illegal drug trafficking or surveilling border agents and officers,” said Senator Hassan. “This bill will take important steps to counter the threat of malicious drones, as well as helping make sure that drones cannot interfere with airport operations and safety. I encourage my colleagues to support this bipartisan bill that will strengthen our national security.”
In May, former Deputy Administrator of the Transportation Security Administration, Patricia Cogswell, told HSToday of the need for urgent federal action on countering the drone threat.
“For several years, when asked what I consider the highest risks to the U.S., I’ve consistently listed the need for counter-UAS in my top three,” Cogswell said. “When I first began working in this arena more than a decade ago, our conversations were about preparing for the future – ensuring we were ahead and ready. We need to change our frame. The future has arrived. I’m hopeful Congress will move swiftly on legislation, permanently authorizing the various entities to counter this threat, and consistently fund federal operations at the levels necessary.”