Policy

Two agencies, two different approaches to drone threats at airports

FAA considers registering drones, DHS contemplates shooting them down as sightings near airports increase dramatically

Passengers at Gatwick Airport wait for their flights after delays and cancellations brought on by drone sightings near the airfield in December 2018. (Isabel Infantes/PA Images via Getty Images file photo)

Nearly a year after a series of drone sightings shut down holiday traffic at an airport near London for two days, the U.S. government is entertaining two starkly different approaches to dealing with the problem — even as the busy holiday travel season commences.

On one hand, the Federal Aviation Administration is hoping to release a long-awaited rule in December that would equip drones with the electronic equivalent of a license plate, allowing law enforcement to match a drone to its operator. On the other, a coalition of federal agencies is drafting plans of how federal air marshals could shoot those drones out of the sky if necessary.

While the “Battle of Gatwick,” as it’s now known, disrupted travel plans for 140,000 passengers last December at Gatwick Airport near London, drones near airports are not rare: Between April 1 and June 30 of this year alone, the FAA collected 714 reports of unauthorized drone sightings near aircraft or airports in the U.S.

Those reports were sightings, and not officially confirmed as drones, but they are an indication of how often the issue emerges as a concern. While some airports use drones for harmless purposes, such as monitoring the conditions of the runway, an unauthorized drone near an airport is rife with risk: A collision between an aircraft and a drone could be tragic.

[What Happens When a Drone Flies Into a Jet Engine?]

A terrorist attack using a drone would be even more devastating. That’s where technology comes in: Remote ID, which rigs drones with identifiers akin to an electronic license plate, is aimed at helping authorities figure out who’s flying.

While criminals might not allow such technology on their drones, someone unwittingly flying a drone near restricted airspace likely would.

“A lot of the challenge right now is someone on the ground not knowing if that thing flying in the field to the left of the runway is authorized or not,” said Brian Wynne, president and CEO of the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, which represents the drone and robotics industry.

Amanda Armistead, an adviser to the Small UAV Coalition, which advocates for policies supporting small unmanned aerial vehicles, said the technology will “allow law enforcement to essentially tell right away the difference between a good actor and a bad actor.” 

Delayed rule

The FAA is holding off on releasing rules for flying drones at night, out of the operator’s sight and over people until a Remote ID rule is done. Until then, anyone who wants to fly a drone under those conditions must seek waivers from the agency.

The rule’s release has been delayed repeatedly.

Christopher Cooper, director of regulatory affairs for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, said that’s because a solution isn’t simple. The regulatory framework must consider issues of “safety, privacy and security,” he said.

The lack of such a rule has inhibited growth in the drone industry, said Doug Johnson, vice president of technology policy for the Consumer Technology Association. “It’s a linchpin rule-making,” he said.

But those in the industry caution that Remote ID alone is not a panacea.

“A license plate on a car doesn’t stop a terrorist,” said Tim Bean, CEO of Fortem Technologies, a Utah-based company that makes systems to counter unwanted drones.

[Lawmakers Pushing Drone Legislation Hear Threat Warnings]

To combat what they deem “persistent threats,” a handful of federal agencies this year drafted a plan to designate the Transportation Security Administration’s Federal Air Marshal Service as the lead federal agency in stopping drones that threaten airports. 

That plan has left two Republican lawmakers concerned. In a letter to acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad F. Wolf in November, Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., ranking member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and Rep. Mike D. Rogers of Alabama, ranking member of the Homeland Security Committee, wrote that the plan exceeds the authority provided by Congress in the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018.

Congressional intent

“If Congress had wanted to provide specific (counter-UAS) authority to TSA, it would have done so,” they wrote, adding that the agency does not have “the authority or the experience” needed to shoot down drones. The two said while they do not want drones to cause disruptions at airports, “to hastily hand over authority to shoot down drones to an agency that doesn't have the critical knowledge or experience of how our airspace system functions is irresponsible and dangerous.”

In a statement, the TSA said it “will only seek to mitigate a UAS in limited, emergency circumstances in order to ensure the safety and security of the national airspace.”

The FAA, meanwhile, said the proposal was, in fact, a response to a congressional request to develop a pilot program testing drone detection and mitigation technologies at U.S. airports.

Gray area

Chris Oswald, vice president of safety and regulatory affairs at the Airport Council International of North America, said the TSA plan represents “an effective jumping-off point” to start a plan to tackle drone incursions at airports. Without a clear federal plan to address drones at airports, he said, “we’re leaving folks with a huge gray area, a huge amount of uncertainty.”

Armistead said Congress wrote the law in such a way to create a limited authority to shoot down drones over certain federal installations and special events like the Super Bowl: “They didn’t want to open it up and say, ‘Have at it,’” she said.

“They wanted to make sure they had a good understanding of the ramifications before they looked at expanding,” she said of Congress’ intent.

[NFL Security Chief Backs Bipartisan Drone Defense Bill]

Wynne, of AUVSI, said the more appropriate way to handle drones is through “electronic countermeasures,” such as taking command and control of a drone. But Fortem Technologies’ Bean — whose company makes a system that can track and capture drones, or shoot them down — said the latter is sometimes unavoidable.

While technology such as geofencing and/or software that allows drones to be hacked and sent back to their operators can stop some unsophisticated drones, Bean said a savvy bad actor is harder to stop. Those drones, he said, are frequently preprogrammed and can’t be hacked.

While the Department of Homeland Security is one of four federal agencies with the authority to shoot down potentially harmful drones, Wynne said that “shooting down a [drone] can pose a hazard and danger to people on the ground and other aircraft in the air, and should only be used as a last resort.” 

 

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