At a recent hearing on unmanned aircraft systems, Samantha Vinograd, senior counselor for national security at Department of Homeland Security and acting Assistant Secretary for Counterterrorism and Threat Prevention, said “I will say that of all the things that keep me awake at night, one that is foremost on my mind is the potential for a major tragedy at an airport.”

Vinograd’s concerns are shared by many experts working in government, the business community, and academia.

“As consumer-grade UAS continue to proliferate domestically, we are starting to see an uptick in the number of drone incidents that have the potential to cause serious safety or security issues,” said Ryan Wallace, an Associate Professor in the Aeronautical Science Department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. “In my opinion, most law enforcement agencies are not adequately equipped or trained to effectively respond to drone incidents at this point in time.”

Wallace’s Embry-Riddle colleague, Anthony Galante, agreed. “It is not a matter of if but when a catastrophic incident will occur involving a manned aircraft and an UAS in the US,” stated Galante, an Associate Professor at Embry-Riddle and a Police Detective with the Daytona Beach (FL) Police Department. “Local law enforcement does not have the proper policy nor are they trained on how to handle UAS intrusions in the National Air Space (NAS).”

Matt Furlow, Director of Policy for the US Chamber of Commerce’s Technology Engagement Center, also believes that steps must be taken to assist law enforcement deal with risks posed by drones. “Effective and safe deployment of counter-UAS technologies is essential to ensure the security of the airspace and protect against threats posed by UAS,” he said. “It is imperative that policymakers advance a framework that allows for the responsible usage of counter-UAS technologies by both governmental and non-governmental entities alike.”

Recent reports and plans
Fortunately, industry leaders, law enforcement officials, and government agencies are working to address these challenges. In April, for example, the White House released “The Domestic Counter-Unmanned Aircraft Systems National Action Plan.” Aimed at setting “new ground rules for the expanding uses of UAS and improve our defenses against the exploitation of UAS for inappropriate or dangerous purposes,” the plan contains recommendations concerning legislation, training, threat tracking, and more.

Many law enforcement and UAV industry leaders see the National Action Plan as a major step forward. However, they caution that more needs to be done, including enabling ease of access to test sites to encourage counter-UAS (C-UAS) innovation.

Another significant step toward improving UAV security occurred this spring when the US Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General issued a report on FAA testing of detection and mitigation systems. The report found that the “FAA has not conducted a strategic assessment of the UAS detection and C-UAS program to ensure it has the resources needed and agile coordination processes in place to keep pace with increasing demand.”

Many industry leaders agreed with the report’s findings and called for faster action from the FAA.

At the same time, private companies are working with public officials and regulators to improve C-UAS actions and plans. For example, WhiteFox Defense, a leader in counter-drone and airspace security technologies, is actively participating in the FAA’s testing and evaluation program for UAS detection and C-UAS systems as it gets underway. For this work, the company draws on its expertise in drone tracking and threat detection for critical infrastructure and event security.

Having deployed its UAS detection systems at major events including the Formula 1 US Grand Prix, WhiteFox Defense has data showing the extent of the danger. Bill Inman, WhiteFox Director of Business Development, said, “not only have we seen a significant number of TFR violations and dangerous flights over crowds during events, but we also consistently see flights over 1,000 feet, even over 1,500 feet, within five miles of major airports.”

“Most of what we see are the actions of the clueless or careless,” said Luke Fox, Founder and CEO of WhiteFox Defense, “but law enforcement needs the tools to also differentiate the compliant and, most importantly, the criminal, without relying on ‘hoping’ to spot a drone. We applaud the White House for accelerating the legislative process to put effective tools in the hands of local law enforcement and to protect the critical infrastructure that fuels our daily lives.”

Law enforcement responses to drone threats
All efforts to help address threats posed by drones are crucial to the advancement of the UAV industry and to overall public safety. And make no mistake—the threats to public safety are real and growing.

For example, drones flying in restricted airspace, such as near airports, can interfere with safe operations and result in tragedy. Large drones flying over stadiums or public gatherings can cause panic and injury. Moreover, examples abound of drones being used to spy on or harass individuals, smuggle drugs and other illegal cargo, and carry weapons with intent to harm.

Pearland, TX police officer Brandon Karr detailed the many drone-related issues his department has faced in recent months. He reports that a drone interfered with a missing person body recovery operation, resulting in the pilot being issued a violation. Also, a non-participating drone flew around launch locations of an overwatch operation in which police were monitoring potential gang conflict.

Karr also described his department’s reaction to UAS sightings near a local airport. Working with WhiteFox Defense, the Pearland Police validated the sightings, contacted the offender, and used the opportunity to educate the pilot of the federal regulations.

Officer Matt Rowland of the Fort Wayne, IN Police Department shared similar stories. He described concerns his department had with drones flying during the May 2020 protests.

“There were at least three different occasions where a drone was located flying while we were flying operations for overwatch during the three-week period,” Rowland reported. “We were able to locate and make contact with the pilots of those drones, and they were cooperative and respectful. The concern is if they were not respectful of our operations and if they had been nefarious with their actions.”

Law enforcement seeks rules and guidance
To address these situations, law enforcement agencies around the country are asking for clearer guidance and better tools. A recent editorial in Police 1 pointed out that “only those working for the DHS, DOD, DOE and the DOJ are legally allowed to mitigate and intercept a threatening drone.” The authors called for changes to the law, including the granting of “authority to state and local law enforcement to help take down drones in order to effectively protect the communities in which we serve.”

While public safety officials push for change, others are moving ahead with plans and procedures to address threats posed by drones today. For example, through his work with the Daytona Beach Police Department, Galante and his colleagues created a comprehensive guide to detecting, deterring, and dealing with nefarious drone activity.

The plan sets a UAS intrusion policy and provides steps for law enforcement officers to take when confronted with suspicious or illegal drone activity. These steps include locating the UAS operator-in-command, identifying whether the operation is for public, commercial, or hobby use, and collecting information, including vehicle documentation and registration. The policy also presents guidance on conducting interviews, adhering to local laws, ordinances, and directives, and working with the FAA.

How can the National Action Plan lead to increased safety
While efforts like those of the Daytona Police are helping to address immediate threats, they also highlight the urgent need for clear policies to guide law enforcement and public safety professionals. Many see the “The Domestic Counter-Unmanned Aircraft Systems National Action Plan” as a move in that direction.

Wallace said that the National Action Plan is “a strong step forward in responding to illicit UAS use, but caution must be taken to ensure adequate support infrastructure is in place to support this initiative.”

He believes that to be successful, the plan “must be coupled with the capability to support UAS detection and mitigation systems testing, tactics development, personnel training, funding, and technology acquisition support.”

Wallace stated that the “initiative tackles some of these issues, but many needs remain unaddressed.” For example, he said that “a necessary critical component to implementing the National Action Plan is to implement a set of standards that enables consistent employment with other stakeholder agencies and integrates into existing protection safety and security response measures.”

To set these standards, Wallace called on regulators to refer to the work of the Radio Technical Commission on Aeronautics (RTCA). In cooperation with the European Organization for Civil Aviation Equipment (EUROCAE), RTCA recently released guidance for responding to UAS incidents near airports. This work, he reported, “provides a high-level overview of threat characteristics, unique airport environmental issues, detection and mitigation technology overview, integration challenges, response architecture, and related material.”

Moreover, Wallace said, “the document provides requirements, recommendations and options needed to facilitate counter-UAS objectives.” Similarly, he reported, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) published related guidance on drone incident management at aerodromes. “It would be wise for the National Action Plan to build upon these existing foundations,” Wallace asserted.

The US Chamber’s Furlow, whose organization has published a white paper discussing key policy issues for UAS, UAM, and AV operations, hopes that counter drone systems can be created that “do not interfere with legitimate UAS or manned operations.” Still, he believes that “the federal government has made good strides in the last few years” and that the National Action Plan is a “step in the right direction.”

“Now it's time to get pen to paper, get the stakeholders together, and ensure that Congress is fully aware of all the potential risks posed by UAS and the need for counter-UAS activities to meet that challenge,” Furlow said.

Additional recommendations
Other experts are calling for additional steps to assist law enforcement around drones. For example, Galante said that “Part 107 needs to be revamped by the FAA, and there needs to be a practical exam—an oral exam along with a written exam—to operate in the NAS.” This, he asserted, “would create the proverbial ‘buy-in’ the FAA is always looking for and raise the barrier to entry.”

Moreover, Galante proposed improvements to the FAA’s Law Enforcement Assistance Program (LEAP), an effort that supports, “federal, state, and local agencies by denying anyone who would threaten national security access to the National Airspace System.”

According to Galante, “the LEAP agent program is a great program for local law enforcement to use but it is poorly staffed, and the LEAP agents are overwhelmed and untrained in local policing processes since they cover large geographical swaths. I have had nothing but positive experiences with my LEAP agent but there is ample room for improvement.”

Officer Rowland stated that a federal drone mitigation training program for state, local, tribal, and territorial (SLTT) agencies would be helpful. “Similar to the way that HDU or bomb squads currently train in federal programs, being able to bring this authority to the SLTT agencies would provide a better response to UAS that could pose threats, from large gatherings to soft targets in local jurisdictions,” he said.

“We are encouraged to see the White House and Congress moving quickly to turn the National Action Plan into law,” said Fox. “With large scale events and air travel ramping back up, and the number of drones operating in the US now well over 1 million, local law enforcement and operators of airports and other critical infrastructure need the detection and mitigation tools and training in time to prevent incidents.” Otherwise, Galante’s dire prediction may come true.