The Challenges and Potential Dangers of Drones

In my last GovLoop blog I spoke about the significant value of drones for good. It is undeniable that drones have and will continue to enhance the lives of everyone. However, there are still dangers from drones operated by what have been identified as the 4 Cs (curious, clueless, careless, and criminal).

Drones or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) can be purchased relatively inexpensively, easily and operated with very little regulatory control or even guidance necessary to safely fly in the national air space.

This poses some serious concerns.

The first 3 Cs, while innocuous, still pose a danger and can interrupt life in a big way. This is especially true when drones are flown near airports, over sports stadiums or over large groups of people. Drones have interrupted airport operations, wildland firefighting operations, interfered with medical helicopter flights and escalated civil unrest situations. In the case of the first 3 Cs, the curious are simply flying to see what they can see. The clueless fly with no understanding that they have the same responsibility as any other manned pilot. The careless fly with no regard for regulations or safety.

The last of the four Cs, criminal, is the most dangerous because they are the bad actors that have nefarious intentions. Drones are being used for illicit activities which include, but are not limited to, transport of illegal drugs, dropping leaflets into NFL stadiums, dropping contraband (drugs, cell phones, cigarettes and weapons) into prison yards and in some cases carrying weapons (firearms, flame throwers, explosives).

In one case, a drone helped an inmate escape from a correctional facility.

To further validate the concern, the U.S. military has identified a number of ways that commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) drones have been weaponized with intentions to attack U.S. warfighters or military bases overseas.

There are two other complications when it comes to addressing potential drone threats. First, there is a combination of 21 federal rules and regulations prohibiting the use of counter drone technology (with the exception of specific federal homeland security agencies and the military).

The second issue is that until recently, drones were not required to be registered and there is a large number of unregistered drones which make it extremely difficult to identify the drone pilot. This is especially important to identify friend from foe. Additionally, there is no single counter drone technology that addresses all of the various drone technologies. One obvious consideration is understanding the implications of taking down a drone while flying over people and the possible injury to those people.

The good news is that fortunately some progress has been made through Congress passing the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization Act which allows for a progression toward required registration, remote ID, developing a well-thought out counter drone criteria and allowing more authorized use of counter drone technology.

The FAA has also begun to issue temporary flight restrictions (TFRs) specifically for drones. Other successes include passive counter drone technology that can be used legally by identifying the location of the drone and the remote pilot. This gives a way for law enforcement to locate and mitigate inappropriate drone flights. This was very successful during the 2019 NFL Super Bowl Game where approximately 20 to 30 drones were identified and stopped from flying in violation of FAA regulations by the FBI.

Every new technology comes with the possibility of being used for undesirable or dangerous purposes. The future of drones will require a balance between enabling drones for good, countering drones for bad and a comprehensive air traffic management system that encompasses manned and unmanned aircraft.

At the end of the day, the benefits from drones dramatically outweigh the negatives. The FAA’s drone registry is now over one million which clearly indicates that drones are here to stay!

Charles Werner is a GovLoop Featured Contributor. He is the retired Charlottesville fire chief and 44-year public safety veteran. Charles worked with the Virginia Department of Emergency Management from 2015 – 2017 as a senior advisor/acting deputy state coordinator. Charles served in numerous leadership roles at the local, state, national levels on public safety communications, GIS, broadband, information sharing, thermal imaging, enhanced location technology, FirstNet, and drones. Read his posts here.

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