The Senate on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved a five-year reauthorization bill for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that includes additional legislative measures that would also reauthorize the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and provide limited authorities to the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice to deploy technologies to defeat potential threats from aerial drones.
The bipartisan FAA Reauthorization Act (H.R. 302) was approved by a 93 to six vote and is the most significant reauthorization of the agency since the 1980s. The House also easily approved the bill last week by a vote of 398 to 23. The bill still needs to be signed by President Trump to become law.
The bill runs 1,207 pages, in large part because it includes a stream of other legislative measures, including a 280-page division that reauthorizes the TSA for the first time since it stood up in 2001 in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The TSA authorization is for three years.
The TSA Modernization Act mandates a five-year term for the agency administrator, who is appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. No administrator has served five years, although John Pistole, who headed TSA for part of the Obama administration, was in charge for about four and a half years.
Another provision of the TSA division calls for the agency within one year to establish a program to enable vendors of security screening technology to go through testing and evaluation by a third party as an alternative to the TSA testing process. The third party testing must meet TSA, and if applicable, international standards.
The bill also calls for DHS to review whether the Transportation Security Laboratory, which is managed by the Science and Technology (S&T) Directorate, should be organized under TSA. The lab is used to test detection equipment against explosive threats and was originally part of the Transportation Department and then TSA, before shifting to S&T.
The bill also authorizes TSA’s Innovation Task Force, which was stood up late in the Obama administration to more quickly demonstrate and test new technologies in live airport settings than using traditional acquisition approaches.
Congress also wants TSA and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to work together on the deployment of biometric technologies. CBP currently uses fingerprint systems to help verify the identities of foreign nationals entering the U.S. at airports and also for select purposes at land and seaports of entry. The agency is transforming the entry process to use facial recognition technology and is also rolling out the technology for exit checks at airline gates on international flights.
TSA has tested fingerprint and face recognition technology at its security checkpoints.
TSA is also directed within 18 months to provide the public with the wait times at airport security checkpoints that it operates.
TSA Administrator David Pekoske lauded the legislation, saying in in a statement that it "emphasizes stability, supports TSA’s outstanding workforce, and modernizes the agency’s structure and operations."
Tucked into the FAA bill is the Preventing Emerging Threats Act, which also has bipartisan support, and allows DHS and DoJ to deploy counter-unmanned aircraft system (C-UAS) technologies to mitigate the threat of drones near certain assets.
Covered assets and facilities are defined as "high-risk and a potential target for unlawful unmanned aircraft activity" based on a risk-based assessment done by DHS and DoJ and in coordination with the Transportation Department for the impact on the national airspace.
"We’ve seen rapid advances in drone technology, but government policy in this area simply hasn’t kept pace," Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), one of the co-sponsors of the C-UAS legislation, said in a statement.
The counter-drone language also applies to National Special Security Events, such as Republican and Democratic Party national conventions and the Super Bowl, and in support of state and local first responders charged with securing mass gatherings.
Another key feature of the C-UAS measure is that it allows DHS S&T to test technologies to mitigate or defeat drone threats, something that for the most part is prohibited in the U.S. The Secret Service, which is an arm of DHS, has authorities to down drones and the Departments of Defense and Energy also have limited authorities to protect their facilities in the U.S. from UAS systems.
There has been limited testing of anti-drone technologies in the national airspace, which includes a range of environments such as dense urban settings, airports and nuclear power plants, remote and rural areas. S&T says testing of C-UAS systems needs to occur throughout these environments.
The concern with UAS relates to small drones that are available for purchase commercially, through online retailers or traditional stores. These systems are already being used to smuggle drugs and spy on some critical infrastructures in the U.S. and there are concerns that terrorists will arm them as they’ve done overseas, or more recently, in a failed assassination attempt against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.