As drone popularity grows, government considers how to safeguard the skies

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While the vast majority of drone operators pilot their devices safely, there have been incidents where drones stray into dangerous places.

Drones are an amazing and quickly evolving technology that have come a long way in a very short period of time. Looking back just six years ago, I was interviewing state and local public safety officials who were adding drones to their law enforcement and search and rescue capabilities, a completely new concept at the time which people were still trying to figure out.

But drones quickly proved their worth. In that column alone, some of the public safety officials were able to share a dramatic video demonstrating how a drone was able to find and rescue a vulnerable older person who had hidden in a cornfield after just a few minutes of searching. Dozens of deputies had been looking for the woman for hours before deploying the drone.

With successes like that quickly becoming commonplace, it’s little wonder why so many public safety groups now have drones as part of their standard toolbox today. Meanwhile, over in the military, the embrace of drones has been even more pronounced. The war in Ukraine has proven the value of drones in many frontline combat roles, including reconnaissance, anti-tank operations and strategic bombing. In fact, those who create the simulations that militaries around the world use to train their soldiers are learning from the war and quickly adding drones into those simulations. And the military is pushing the use of drones even further, including using artificial intelligence to introduce swarm tactics that could enable the next generation of military robots to have an even greater impact on the battlefield. 

What the military and state governments are doing with drones is impressive, but there has also been an explosion in popularity for commercial drones too. A quick search on Amazon for drones reveals over 5,000 results, with everything from professional models costing hundreds of dollars to more fun products shaped like airplanes or decked out in bright neon lights. There is even an entire section for children who are just learning how to pilot drones. Many of the drones — even large ones with long flight times, powerful motors and high-tech HD cameras — don’t cost more than $100. As such, it should be no surprise that many people are buying and flying drones these days.

And that could be a problem. While the vast majority of drone operators pilot their devices safely in public parks, designated areas or even on private land, there have been incidents where drones stray into dangerous places. Just last month, the Pittsburgh International Airport had to stop operations for a while because of a drone flying around within restricted airspace. And incidents like that are on the rise.

Developing a drone defense

So, while the government is working on improving drone capabilities, there is also the need to develop a defense against drones that might be piloted unsafely or with malicious intent. One way that is happening is through a partnership with Dedrone, a company that makes technology designed to track and stop drones that stray into restricted spaces. The company currently works with 30 federal agencies, including the Federal Aviation Administration, where its technology is being tested at multiple airports under Section 383 of the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018, which funds the testing of counter-drone detection activities, tracking, identification and mitigation technologies.

Nextgov/FCW sat down with Dedrone CMO Mary-Lou Smulders to talk about the rising threat posed by commercial drones, the current state of detection technologies and the future of domestic counter-drone operations.

Nextgov/FCW: Many people own drones these days, and they are extremely easy to get. What kinds of threats might that pose for commercial air travel or for the physical security of things like government buildings or critical infrastructure?

Smulders: As drones become capable of flying further and carrying heavier payloads, the threat level they pose increases. The distance they can operate from their pilot makes them harder to catch and, of course, payloads are always a concern, like during the Gatwick Airport incident in 2018. And now, with the usage of drones in Ukraine, it’s clear that explosive carrying drones are not an imaginary problem.

Nextgov/FCW: And are you also seeing a rise in the number of drones flying domestically?

Smulders: Yes, and the rise of drones is very closely tracking the general increase in drone sales. By 2025, the commercial drone market is expected to reach a value of $13.6 billion in the United States alone and $63.6 billion worldwide, growing at a rate of 15% in the commercial market alone. 

Interestingly, the single day with the most drone traffic in the U.S. is, by far, July 4th.

Nextgov/FCW: And with all those new drone pilots, some of them end up breaking the law or operating their UAV carelessly. Of the drone threats that you have tracked, what are the most common reasons behind those violations?

Smulders: We see three categories of drone pilots violating regulations. The first is the truly careless and clueless pilots who are not aware of the laws and are using drones for purely recreational purposes.

Then there are the pilots who know they are breaking the law but have no truly nefarious intentions. Think of the person flying over a stadium full of people or near a commercial aircraft to get that great shot or video for likes on the internet.

And then finally there are truly bad actors who are looking to either do harm or get images and information without permission.

Nextgov/FCW: And once a drone-based threat is detected, what can the government do to try and mitigate or stop it?

Smulders: There are four main methods of mitigating or stopping a drone. The first is to locate the pilot and force them to bring the drone down. And in the United States, that is the only legal path that state, local, territorial and tribal law enforcement agencies currently have to stop a drone. 

The second method would be to jam the drone’s signal. Jamming a drone creates a virtual wall between the remote and the drone, stopping the drone from receiving a signal. In that case, most drones are programmed to fly back to their takeoff location, which non-invasively stops a single drone or a drone swarm without any physical damage to the drone or its surroundings. 

Another method would be to hack the drone. Certain technologies can directly hack into drones and take control of them. This allows security teams to land the drone in a safe location of their choosing. 

Finally, you could kinetically stop the drone. That category of drone mitigations refers to physically affecting the drone in some way from drone net guns to kamikaze anti-drones and more.

Nextgov/FCW: And how critical will it be for the government in the future to be able to detect the presence of drones being legally operated, either by hobbyists or those employed in some type of official role like food delivery? Is this going to be even more critical as the skies become increasingly more crowded with drones?

Smulders: Absolutely. The FAA has created Remote ID regulation that went into effect for regulators in December 2022 and will go into effect for drone operators on Sept 16, 2023 as a start toward that goal of monitoring our airspace. 

The issue is that Remote ID, which has been likened to a license plate for drones, has the same advantages and pitfalls of a license plate. In other words, when a robber goes to steal money from a bank, the first thing they do is remove the license plate from the getaway car. A nefarious drone pilot could do the same thing by disabling their Remote ID broadcasting module. For this reason, you will always need a more robust and broader drone detection solution, something like Dedrone, to ensure total airspace security.

Nextgov/FCW: That makes sense. It sounds like the FAA’s remote ID regulation for drones will help better control the skies, and then counter-drone systems can be used to look for the truly malicious threats of drones with their IDs disabled.

Smulders: Yes, the goal of a counter-drone system is to not only stop so-called bad drones and help harden security protocols, but also to ensure that the good drones, like delivery drones, first responder UAVs and so on can fly in a safe airspace without disrupting other aircraft.

Counter-drone security also thinks beyond just bad drone mitigation. To even mitigate a drone in the first place, a system must be able to detect, track and identify the drone itself to confirm its presence, follow its flight path, understand a specific drone model’s capabilities (like top speed, payload, range, etc.) and, most importantly, locate the pilot — which is the heart of the issue.  Without locating the pilot, the issue can’t actually be solved under current regulations.

John Breeden II is an award-winning journalist and reviewer with over 20 years of experience covering technology. He is the CEO of the Tech Writers Bureau, a group that creates technological thought leadership content for organizations of all sizes. Twitter: @LabGuys