Government Authority to Counter Drones Gets Expansion Under New Legislation 

Joel Papalini / EyeEm

The Senate bill  would extend the DHS and DOJ’s drone-countering abilities that are set to expire in October, while also implementing some of the Biden administration’s recommendations for mitigating risks posed by potentially malicious drones.

A bipartisan group of senators has introduced legislation to renew the federal government’s authority to mitigate threats from unmanned aircraft systems, known as drones, including those that veer into controlled airspace near U.S. airports. 

The legislation—known as the Safeguarding the Homeland from the Threats Posed by Unmanned Aircraft Systems Act—was introduced by Sens. Gary Peters, D-Mich., and Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., along with Sens. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz.

The bill was introduced after the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee held a hearing with government officials last month to discuss how federal agencies are working to address the risks posed by menacing unmanned aircraft systems across the country. Samantha Vinograd, DHS’s acting assistant secretary for counterterrorism and threat prevention, told the committee that the Transportation Security Administration reported almost 2,000 drone sightings near U.S. airports since 2021, “including incursions at major airports nearly every day.”

Drones operating near U.S. airports have resulted in significant flight delays and several near-misses with airplanes over the past several years. In 2019, a drone sighting near Newark Liberty International Airport—one of the three major airports serving the New York City region—resulted in delays to 43 inbound flights and nine other flights being diverted. And, just last month, a drone spotted near one of the runways at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport halted all flights for roughly 30 minutes. 

According to a report from the Congressional Research Service, the FAA estimates there will be approximately 2.3 million unmanned aircraft systems—including recreational drones, model aircraft and commercial drones—registered to fly in U.S. airspace by 2024. 

Peters, who chairs the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said in a statement that the legislation will “bolster federal efforts to prevent unmanned aircraft systems from disrupting or harming lives and livelihoods, ensure federal agencies working to combat these threats are more accountable to the public and protect the civil rights and liberties of responsible drone owners.”

Congress passed the Preventing Emerging Threats Act in 2018, which authorized the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security to track and counter threats posed by drones, including those used by transnational criminal organizations to smuggle drugs or to surveil U.S. border agents. The newly introduced bill would renew those agencies' existing authority, which is currently set to expire in October, while also empowering the Transportation Security Administration to take proactive counter-drone measures to protect critical transportation infrastructure from potential threats.

The bill also includes some of the policy recommendations from the White House’s “Domestic Counter-Unmanned Aircraft Systems National Action Plan” released in April, including creating a federal database to track security-related drone incidents across the U.S. and developing a federally-sponsored pilot program to allow local, state and tribal authorities to take “actions that are necessary to mitigate a credible threat” from drones and other unmanned aerial systems. 

“It is paramount that our national security agencies have the tools they need to mitigate the serious threats posed by UAS,” Johnson said in a statement.