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White House Drafting Bill Against Hostile Drones

Issued: 2018-03-06

BALTIMORE—White House officials are preparing legislation that for the first time would allow federal law enforcement and homeland security to disrupt, take over or even destroy suspected hostile drones in U.S. airspace.

The goal is to break the logjam preventing substantial expansion of commercial uses of unmanned aerial systems, because those agencies currently lack authority to disrupt or neutralize suspicious aircraft piloted from the ground.

The Pentagon and the Energy Department, which operates nuclear-warhead manufacturing sites, already have explicit powers to take out suspect or unidentified drones passing over their critical facilities. Michael Kratsios, the White House’s deputy technology adviser, said on Tuesday that a bill is now being drafted—and is expected to be unveiled shortly—giving the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Homeland Security and other civilian agencies similar rights to detect and defeat such threats.

“We need to reduce risks…to public safety” from the errant or hostile use of drones, Mr. Kratsios told a government-industry conference here. The bill, among other things, seeks to eliminate the outright ban against any of the agencies interfering with radio transmissions or other communications affecting unmanned aerial vehicles. Mr. Kratsios didn’t elaborate on the language or legal principles that will form the backbone of the anticipated bill.

Without additional powers to act quickly and unilaterally against potential airborne threats, Federal Aviation Administration’s efforts to loosen safety rules for drone operators appear indefinitely delayed, Bryan Wynne, president of the industry’s largest trade association, told the same conference.

Previous FAA moves to propose remote tracking and identification of drones failed, due partly to splits among industry players and because leaders of the FBI and other federal law enforcement agencies balked at signing on to concepts that failed to include the green light for taking countermeasures.

The FAA is continuing to look for ways to gradually phase-in drone operations at night, over densely populated areas and beyond the sight of ground-based operators. But acting FAA administrator Daniel Elwell warned that faced with the potential threat of “people who aren’t playing by the rules,” a single “malicious act could put a hard stop (to) all the good work we’ve done.”

Another sign of escalating interest in combating hostile drones is the dramatic growth of startups and other companies offering technologies for such purposes. Some industry estimates indicate there are now over 200 providers of various counter-drone systems, several times the total just a few years ago.

A bevy of U.S. intelligence reports and news stories highlighting terrorist groups weaponizing off-the-shelf drone models also has added to White House concerns.

Under the current legal framework, if a drone suddenly appears over a crowd and its intention isn’t clear, “we have limited tools to use,” according to Angela Stubblefield, a high-level FAA official responsible for security issues.

She told the conference that security experts describe the range of potential threats from hostile actors to hobbyists who inadvertently interfere with helicopters assisting firefighters, emergency medical evacuations or local police. The array of possible troublemakers encompasses “the clueless, the careless and the criminals,” she said.

Yet above all, speakers at Tuesday’s session emphasized the FAA and industry still must agree on a demonstrated, reliable technology to identify drones that are increasingly common across U.S. skies. More than one million drones have been registered with the FAA, and some 70,000 have been classified as primarily for commercial applications.

In light of anticipated sustained growth, Ms. Stubblefield said, “anonymous operations are antithetical to safety and security.”


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