Legislation in the Senate permitting the use of technology to defeat potential threats from drones is necessary to enable the testing and evaluation of these technologies in operationally relevant environments, a Department of Homeland Security official said on Wednesday.
Current law allows for detecting and tracking of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) “but we’re not able to take any mitigation actions,” William Bryan, the Trump administration’s nominee to be under secretary of Science and Technology (S&T) at DHS, said at his Senate confirmation hearing. “That’s a concern. That’s a significant concern across the entire department. We cannot even do research, development, testing in an evaluation (RDT&E) in an operational environment.”
Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said that in events where large numbers of people are gathered, they are counting on technology to protect them, including from drones that may pose a threat. He asked Bryan what research DHS has been able to do in the area of mitigating UAS threats.
Bryan replied that that DHS has done “limited research” counter drone technologies and is “well aware” of the existing systems in this space but actual testing in an operational environment is a “challenge.” Testing on federal lands with wide open spaces occurs but “it doesn’t replicate an operational environment at all,” he said.
What’s needed is to be able to test these technologies in urban environments, because “when you get into a city environment where the buildings are taller, technology is going to react very differently and that’s the challenge we face by not having the ability to” test and evaluate counter drone systems in these environments.
Bryan has been the acting chief of the directorate for more than a year.
The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee also heard testimony from Peter Gaynor, President Donald Trump’s nominee to be the deputy administrator of the DHS Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Several members of the committee in May introduced a bipartisan bill that would give DHS and the Justice Department limited authorities to test and evaluate and use counter drone technologies and systems in limited applications. A similar bill has been introduced in the House. The Trump administration has given its support for the bills.
Langford also mentioned that Customs and Border Protection has non-lethal devices for use in boarding vessels that the Coast Guard doesn’t have, and asked Bryan how DHS can make sure it isn’t “reinventing the wheel” every time one agency wants something that another agency already has. Bryan said “one value” S&T brings to DHS is being aware of systems and technologies in use across the department to help minimize duplication.
“We have to identify those activities are cross-cutting and utilize them,” Bryan said. Technology foraging is a key element to S&T’s activities “going forward,” Bryan said, adding that, “I truly believe that probably 60 to 70 percent of our solutions are already developed in some way shape or form somewhere and they’re out there. We have to have a mature, robust and systemic way of going out and bringing that technology in, doing a T&E on it, it may actually meet the requirement off the shelf, or we may have to do some additional R&D, but that is going to significantly streamline the acquisition process in getting out into the field.”
Bryan also said that he agrees with a congressional bill that eliminates S&T’s Homeland Security Advanced Projects Agency (HSARPA) in favor of an Office of the Chief Scientist, saying HSARPA has never received the funding to do the kind of high risk, high payoff activities found in traditional advanced research projects agencies elsewhere in the government. He said the typical time to obtain solutions through these activities is usually too long for DHS needs and that timelines need to be shortened.
“I think the Office of the Chief Scientist is going to be a much better, more agile fit for us as we focus on a lot of more, and I’ll say tactical issues and requirements within the department,” he told the committee. The new office “will allow them to look over the horizon” at forthcoming advances in things like machine learning and artificial intelligence “to keep us informed.”
Both Bryan and Gaynor were well received by the committee.