Military Counter-UAS Efforts Creating Framework For Other US Agencies

By Calvin Biesecker | July 12, 2018
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Drone Defender Disables Trespassing Drones

A U.S. 1st Security Forces Assistance Brigadesoldier uses a Drone Defender to capture and control a drone as its flying March 6, 2018. The Drone Defender uses an electromagnetic pulse to disable its target and has a range of 600 meters. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army

Work done by the U.S. Defense Department (DOD) to thwart potential threats posed by remotely piloted aircraft to its domestic facilities is laying the “foundation” for the departments of Homeland Security and Justice to rollout similar capabilities in the homeland once they’ve been granted authorities to do so, an official with the FAA said Wednesday.

DoD received authority from Congress in December 2016 to counter unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) at certain domestic installations, and has deployed these capabilities in two locations over the past year, Steven Mucklow, a DOD official, told a U.S. House panel. He said the rollout has been “deliberate” in part because of close work with partners and to ensure the capabilities are “safely” introduced.


Angela Stubblefield, the deputy associate administrator for security and hazardous materials safety at the FAA, said DOD has only deployed counter-UAS systems to two locations because the department, which is working closely with her agency, is being “deliberative” and is creating a “foundation” that is being applied to the Department of Energy (DOE), and, if granted authorities, DHS and Justice. Like DOD, the DOE also has limited authorities to deploy counter-UAS capabilities.

In response to a question from Rep. Rick Larsen, who commented that the slow rollout of counter-UAS capabilities by DOD at its U.S. facilities might suggest it will take decades for the department and eventually DHS and DOJ to protect domestic facilities from UAS threats, Stubblefield replied that with the “hard work” by DOD “that will hopefully be able to expedite” efforts by other agencies.

“With the foundation in place, we should be down to working on the more site-specific stuff, and even with DOD, once we lock in those foundational pieces of guidance, concepts of operations, notification procedures, then moving site to site goes much more quickly,” Stubblefield told Larsen during a roundtable on counter-UAS issues held by the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation.

Mucklow, who is special assistant to the deputy assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense integration and defense support of civil authorities, and Stubblefield said DOD and FAA collaborate closely, often daily, on potential impacts of domestic counter-UAS deployments on the national airspace. Mucklow also said the same counter-UAS systems are being used at the two facilities and that additional capabilities are about to begin testing at other domestic installations.

“What we’re moving to is that combination of capabilities at our installations because no one capability is going to do the job for us,” Mucklow told the panel.

Most of the counter-UAS technologies on the market have been developed for DOD use and there are concerns that as these capabilities — in particular those used to mitigate or disrupt threats posed by drones — are acquired and deployed for domestic applications, they could interfere with existing electronic systems used in everyday operations and life. While the counter-UAS technologies are non-kinetic, they typically work by jamming or spoofing UAS control signals or by disrupting GPS signals.

David Silver, VP for civil aviation at the Aerospace Industries Association, told the panel that there have been instances where radio wave technologies have caused the loss of autopilot systems on manned aircraft and recently a grocery store’s door was opening and closing due to radio wave interference.

“We have a lot of concerns anytime we’re talking about the use of jamming technology,” noting that these technologies can continue traveling for a ways before dissipating. “So without understanding how those radio frequency waves are going to affect aircraft, we put the aircraft at risk.” He also said that with the blocking and jamming of GPS technology, it’s important not to do spoofing, which can lead to “pilots getting bad information.”

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in June approved bipartisan legislation aimed at giving DHS and DOJ authorities to counter-UAS in limited circumstances. Further movement of the bill in the Senate is still subject to getting agreement from other committees with jurisdiction over relevant departments.

Stubblefield said the FAA supports the legislation, adding that it contains adequate provisions for her agency to be involved in ensuring that counter-UAS systems are deployed safely. While the Senate bill isn’t law, at least not yet, she said DHS and the DOJ are assessing on what assets would be covered by the legislation.

Once the two departments have a first cut at areas that would need protection from malicious drone threats, then the FAA would provide risk assessments related to air traffic in the area and the specific counter-UAS technologies that would be used to help ensure the appropriateness of any solution, Stubblefield said.

In addition to providing authorities for the use of counter-UAS capabilities in the homeland, the Senate bill, Preventing Emerging Threats Act of 2018, would also enable domestic testing of systems to mitigate and disrupt potential drone threats. The DHS Science and Technology Directorate has a unit that is specifically addressing the use of UAS by DHS components and first responders and the need to counter these systems as well.

While the FAA has done testing for detection and tracking of drones near some airports, there still needs to be testing of systems to counter the UAS, not just around airports, but in dense urban environments and other areas such as in border security applications, all of which present their own sets of challenges, Anh Duong, the program executive officer for UAS at S&T, told Defense Daily in June.

There still isn’t a lot of data on the testing and use of counter-UAS systems, particularly in urban conditions, Duong said.

Stubblefield and other panelists at the roundtable are keen on having commercial off-the-shelf drones be equipped with remote identification features so that detection and tracking systems that would be used by federal and even local law enforcement agencies could identify whether a UAS operating in a restricted area might be a threat or just on a wayward flight path. If the remote ID capability included information about the owner, authorities might also be able to contact whoever is controlling the drone and work with them to remove it from an area.

Mucklow said during his opening statement that the threats from commercially-acquired drones is increasing globally. He said in 2017 there were more than 75 documented UAS incursions into prohibited airspace in the U.S., adding that there were probably more undocumented incursions.

Stubblefield cautioned that it’s unknown how many of these incursions were hostile, adding that they weren’t able to locate the operator to find out why the UAS were operating where they shouldn’t.

This was published at sister publication Defense Daily.

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