With federal civilian government agencies slow to test and field technologies to mitigate potential threats from small drones, particularly populated urban environments where safety is paramount, several U.S. senators suggested on Tuesday that local law enforcement officials throughout the country be provided authorities to counter unmanned aircraft systems that threaten critical infrastructure and people.
Authorities granted by Congress last year to the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice to counter UAS threats in certain areas over domestic airspace are limited when it comes to helping state and local law enforcement provide persistent defenses, Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), ranking member on the Senate Commerce, Science, & Transportation Committee’s subcommittee on security, said at a hearing on drone security.
“At the local level there are no authorities that have been actually pushed down … to be able to act or respond to a drone incident,” Harold Shaw, chief security officer for the Massachusetts Port Authority (Massport), which oversees Boston’s Logan International Airport, said in response to a question from Markey. “Unfortunately, we don’t have the technologies in place to respond nor do we actually have the legal framework … to be able to counter and respond to any type of incidents.”
“No pun intended but we’re flying blind at this point,” Shaw said. To provide a proper and balanced response to drone threats, state and local law enforcement needs the C-UAS authorities because they are the first responders, he added.
Catherine Cahill, director of the Alaska Center for UAS Integration at the Univ. of Alaska Fairbanks, said at the hearing that it is illegal under current law for her center to test technologies to interdict drone threats.
Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), chairman of the subcommittee, said Congress needs to pass a law to enable C-UAS testing that is currently only allowed to be performed by certain federal agencies.
The Department of Defense has authorities to test and deploy C-UAS technologies in the U.S. with limitations to protect its assets. The Department of Energy can also deploy these technologies to protect its domestic assets as well. Last year, Congress permitted DHS and DoJ to deploy C-UAS technologies to protect certain critical infrastructures, provide border security, and to help state and local governments protect special events. That legislation also allows DHS to test C-UAS technologies domestically.
The Federal Aviation Administration has authorities to test UAS detection and tracking technology, but the use of mitigation or interdiction technology in the U.S. has been prohibited by laws that prevent the downing of or interference with commercial aircraft.
Shaw said the DHS and DoJ have “done a very, very good job in terms of dealing with greater event” when it comes to deploying C-UAS technology on a temporary basis “but day in and day out they just don’t necessarily have the bandwidth nor the resources to be able to cover each and every one of the major airports across the country.”
Last December, drone sightings at airports in London forced the cancellation of flights for more than a day and the Newark Liberty airport in New Jersey was also impacted by potential drone incursions. Shaw said that there were 32 UAS sightings reported in the first three months of 2019 at the three airports managed by Massport, although operations haven’t been affected.
Markey said “it’s time” for Congress to consider modifying authorities to deal the “tsunami” of UAS threats.
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) said later in the hearing that federal agencies won’t always be able to help state and local authorities respond to UAS threats and that “non-federal” interests need to be taken into account. State and local police need to be able to respond in real-time to these threats, he said.
When Congress was considering providing DHS and DoJ legal authorities to mitigate drone threats, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and sponsor of the legislation, said at the time that the bill was just the first cut at introducing C-UAS capabilities domestically, acknowledging the concerns of state and local officials that they wanted these technologies to deal with drone threats on a routine basis.
Angela Stubblefield, deputy associate administrator for the Office of Security and Hazardous Materials at the Federal Aviation Administration, highlighted that her agency is working toward a rulemaking for remote identification requirements for all UAS users that would signal the location of an unmanned aircraft and its user. She said this would help local law enforcers contend with potential drone threats, whether due to operator error or malicious intent. The remote ID rule is due later this year.
Stubblefield also pointed to technology challenges currently with C-UAS systems, most of which have been developed for military use and pose significant risks to the national airspace and nearby communications systems if introduced into civil environments.