Commercial, Military, Regulatory

US Senate Defense Bill Could Carry Federal Counter-Drone Authorities

By Calvin Biesecker | June 7, 2018
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DJI drone. Photo by Mark Colborn

A bipartisan bill introduced last month that would enable the departments of Homeland Security (DHS) and Justice (DOJ) to police unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) in U.S. airspace could be tacked onto the U.S. Senate’s version of an annual defense policy bill, if the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee gets his way.

The Senate Wednesday planned to begin consideration of its version of the fiscal 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and Sen. Ron Johnson said he hopes the counter-drone bill will be attached to the defense bill as a manager’s amendment.

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Islamic State militants in Iraq have successfully weaponized UAS with grenades to launch air attacks against Iraqi forces with high precision, Transcriminal Organizations have used drones to smuggle drugs across U.S. borders, and the U.S. Coast Guard is seeing more UAS activity where it is performing missions, David Glawe, undersecretary of Intelligence and Analysis at DHS, told Johnson’s committee during a hearing on the domestic counter-drone issue.

Johnson said the Preventing Emerging Threats Act of 2018 will provide “table stakes authority to begin the process, the complex process, of addressing this threat.” The threat stems from the use of small drones by terrorist groups and criminal organizations to drop explosives and hazardous materials, ferry drugs and conduct surveillance against critical infrastructure and other sites.

The bill proposed by Johnson and others on his committee only applies to federal authorities in limited circumstances and is seen as a first step in developing the techniques, policies and capabilities to begin to effectively counter threats from UAS in the U.S.

The threat from UAS against domestic interests is “real” and “urgent,” Glawe said, adding, “I am confident this threat will evolve and malicious use of drones will be more sophisticated.”

Scott Brunner, the deputy assistant director of the FBI’s Critical Incident Response Group, told the panel that it’s easy to acquire UAS and that their capabilities continue to improve, yet they are hard to “disrupt and monitor,” and that the bureau is concerned about their use by criminals and terrorists.

In the past few years, the FAA has registered more than 1 million UAS, which are frequently purchased over the counter or online.

The counter-drone bill is intended to fill an existing gap in U.S. law that prohibits domestic authorities from taking down an aircraft, manned or unmanned, that pose a threat, and from developing and testing the technologies and capabilities that thwart such threats.

“Without this authority, DHS is unable to develop and deploy countermeasures to mitigate nefarious use of this technology,” Glawe said, noting that the bill is just a “first step” and doesn’t address the needs of state and local authorities and first responders who often are the first to encounter potential threats. Glawe and others at the hearing said that legal authorities will need to evolve as federal officials gain experience with counter-drone policies and capabilities and as threats evolve.

Glawe and Hayley Chang, deputy general counsel at DHS, said in their joint written statement for the committee that the lack of legal authorities makes it difficult for the department “to research, develop and test CUAS technologies for eventual CUAS operations by our authorized users.” Currently, some technologies can be used to detect and track drones, they said, but “none can be employed to disable/mitigate UAS in our homeland.”

During the hearing, Glawe said, “This legislation is a very strong first step to get the ball rolling on the policies, procedures, technical capabilities and legal authorities to allow law enforcement officers in the United States to take the actions needed to make the homeland safe.”

Brunner said the FBI is already talking with its state and local partners and other stakeholders about expanding authorities to address their needs.

The Defense Department already has limited authorities to protect its assets in the U.S. from UAS threats. Those authorities don’t apply to DHS and the Justice Department, Johnson pointed out.

DHS and DOJ both support the proposed Senate bill. Angela Stubblefield, the FAA's deputy associate administrator for security and hazardous materials safety, told the panel that her agency supports DHS and DOJ getting the necessary counter-UAS authorities, which will provide lessons learned for operating these technologies in the U.S. national airspace.

Stubblefield mentioned that state and local representatives that are part of its aviation rulemaking committee want to be able to link drones to their operators, noting that in many cases small UAS are interfering with emergency and incident response efforts and police activities. In response, the FAA is focusing on remote identification capabilities, she said.

An FAA spokesperson later told Defense Daily in an email response to questions that “anonymous UAS operations are inconsistent with both safety and security in the national airspace system, and universal remote identification will let security partners discriminate between UAS that pose real security threats and those that may be errant. Remote identification is also fundamental to an operational UAS traffic management system.”

The FAA plans to issue advance notice of proposed rulemaking to obtain public comments on remote tracking capabilities for UAS. Stubblefield told the committee that her agency doesn’t have the authority to remotely identify all UAS operations.

Stubblefield also said that in the pursuit of counter-UAS technologies, the FAA’s concern is balancing the need for increased security without jeopardizing safety of flight.

Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, the ranking member on the committee, wants the government to take advantage of existing counter-UAS technology and purchase it off the shelf. Stubblefield said there are 235 counter-drone systems on the market supplied by 155 vendors in 20 countries.

Stubblefield, Glawe and Chang highlighted that most commercial counter-UAS systems were developed for military use and that minimal testing has been done in civil applications. DHS and the FAA have done limited drone-detection research near select U.S. airports under the agency's Pathfinder program.

This article originally appeared in Defense Daily.

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