Making use of existing legislative authorities to limit the use of drones in the airspace of some areas, providing state and local law enforcement agencies with powers to counter drones, and improving airspace awareness are the primary areas for improving drone security for critical infrastructure protection, an industry official said last week.

Congress in 2016 authorized the Federal Aviation Administration to allow critical infrastructure owners and operators to petition for flight restrictions around fixed-site facilities but the agency still hasn’t issued a rule for this, said Brendan Groves, the head of Regulatory and Policy Affairs for Skydio, a designer and manufacturer of small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).

Under existing law, “it’s not necessarily wrong, it’s not necessarily a crime to conduct espionage or do something else over a sophisticated nuclear facility at three in the morning,” Groves, a former official with the Department of Justice where he worked on drone and counter UAS issues, said during a Sept. 18 webinar hosted by the aviation standards development organization RTCA. This gap in legal authorities led Congress to direct the FAA to enable to impose UAS-specific flight restrictions around critical infrastructures seeking these protections, he said.

Counter UAS (CUAS) authorities also need to be extended beyond the federal departments that have them to include state and local enforcement agencies to protect things like airports, major public events and the critical infrastructure community, Groves said. The Department of Justice, which has CUAS authorities, was part of the team that deployed CUAS capabilities to the 2019 Super Bowl in Atlanta, but the department won’t provide similar security to all NFL football games in a season, he said.

“Who is there?” Groves said. “Well, state and local law enforcement are there all the time. FBI is, too, but it’s really a state and local law enforcement thing. Right now, they literally don’t have the tools to detect, much less disrupt drone threats in that environment.”

The third area for addressing drone security issues is improved situational awareness, which will benefit from the FAA’s ongoing rulemaking process requiring small drones to be identifiable through what is essentially a digital license plate, he said.

Being able to counter drones in some situations is just one “tool in the toolkit” among various other measures to limit risks from small drones, Groves said.

Educating consumers about the safe use of drones is “fundamental to any semblance of airspace security,” Groves said.

Groves also said that “detection” is a “paramount” capability for drone security, pointing out that mitigating or disrupting a potential threat is impossible without it. “You can’t stop what you can’t see,” he said.

Another lesson learned from his experience with CUAS issues is that locating and “interdicting” the operator of a drone “may be more effective than interdicting the drone,” Groves said. Based on his experience in the Justice Department, he said that “what we found is that having the processes in place to interdict the operator is actually more effective and, in many ways, easier than interdicting the drone itself.”

For example, just before the 2019 Super Bowl began, an FBI operator of the CUAS system deployed for the event saw a drone that was in the airspace “just outside the stadium that appeared to be directly in the flightpath” of incoming Air Force F-16 fighters as part of the Thunderbirds aerial demonstration squadron, Groves said. The federal force protection team on site had the Air Force crew slightly adjust their flight to make sure they missed the drone and at the same time located the drone operator in less than two minutes from the time the small aircraft was detected and had the UAS land, he said.

“That story does two things,” Groves said. “One, it shows you the importance of counter UAS. You need it. It’s not a hypothetical issue and two, it showcases the potential utility of interdicting the operator. In general, and federal authorities talk about this in public, they are able to interdict the operator in a handful of minutes of initial detection with teams on the ground.”