At the dawn of the Department of Homeland Security, no one was thinking about how to manage flying robots. In the almost 16 years since its founding, air travel passengers adjusted to the swath of security changes put in place with the aim of lessening the likelihood of airline hijackings. It is the low sky, then, the space where airliners don’t travel except during landings and takeoffs, that a different sort of concern has emerged: what to do about cheap, easy to pilot drones, should they ever become a threat?
Last week, the Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen asked Congress for the authority to “identify, track, and mitigate drones that could pose a danger to the public and to DHS operations,” reports Reuters. Nielsen cited the specific example of ISIS using armed drones, though the technique is hardly limited to ISIS; irregular forces fighting in Ukraine also adapted quadcopters into miniature bombers. The Army is already investing heavily in solving this problem.
As fits the DHS mandate, Nielsen’s concern was focused not on the dangers posed by quadcopters to servicemembers fighting abroad, but that America’s enemies (specifically alluding to ISIS) will use drones as weapons stateside. This is a fear that has yet to materialize, though the technology to make it happen is certainly available, should a nefarious actor decide to pursue it. Additionally, Nielsen wants tools to protect against drones doing surveillance or smuggling drugs, which are at least things people have actually done with drones inside the United States. (Notably absent from the list of threats is the drone swarm that the FBI says interfered with a hostage rescue operation, perhaps the most novel use of drones for illicit behavior so far observed.)
Here’s how the “Preventing Emerging Threats Act of 2018” aims to, well, prevent the emerging threats of 2018. The act, in essence, let DHS and the Department of Justice authorize a range of actions to counter drones, including everything from tracking drones to jamming them to even use force against the uninhabited aircraft. The range of powers, as enumerated in the text:
(A) Detect, identify, monitor, and track the unmanned aircraft system or unmanned aircraft, without prior consent, including by means of intercept or other access of a wire communication, an oral communication, or an electronic communication used to control the unmanned aircraft system or unmanned aircraft. (B) Warn the operator of the unmanned aircraft system or unmanned aircraft, including by passive or active, and direct or indirect physical, electronic, radio, and electromagnetic means.(C) Disrupt control of the unmanned aircraft system or unmanned aircraft, without prior consent, including by disabling the unmanned aircraft system or unmanned aircraft by intercepting, interfering, or causing interference with wire, oral, electronic, or radio communications used to control the unmanned aircraft system or unmanned aircraft.(D) Seize or exercise control of the unmanned aircraft system or unmanned aircraft.(E) Seize or otherwise confiscate the unmanned aircraft system or unmanned aircraft.(F) Use reasonable force to disable, damage, or destroy the unmanned aircraft system or unmanned aircraft.
That’s a dense set of powers, but it mostly covers the full range of counter-drone technologies available today. Notably, it includes use of force at the end, though as written the bill prioritizes non-kinetic means to stop the drone at every turn, including warning the humans operating the machines in question.
Present FAA rules, which regulates things large and small in the sky, are already designed to ensure zones of safety around airports, people in public, and other areas deemed sensitive or risky for flying robots to roam. To get pilots on board with these rules, the FAA pushed education campaigns to teach people what the rules are and how to operate safely. Notably, though, these rules have lacked an enforcement mechanism beyond the vigilance of local law enforcement; years ago, when the FAA was asked how they planned to secure the special event airspace around the 50th Super Bowl, the FAA directed reporters to NORAD, which politely declined to comment. These new provisions would expand the ability of law enforcement and national security agencies to respond to drones within the United States, providing a more concrete answer than fanciful notions of jet-fighter interception of rogue quadcopters.
Still, the presence of a commercial technology adapted into a threat abroad does not guarantee that the threat will manifest in the same way domestically. In the meantime, should the bill pass into law, it could greatly expand the ways in which federal agents interfere with the lives and hobbies of hundreds of thousands of law-abiding drone operators.