The Department of Homeland Security shortly will send Congress a legislative proposal to reauthorize an existing law to expand its limited authorities to detect and counter illegal and potentially dangerous uses of small drones in certain areas amid a sharp rise in incidents and encounters with these small unmanned aircraft, DHS officials said on Thursday.
If current law allowing DHS to conduct limited counter-unmanned aircraft system (C-UAS) activities expires without a reauthorization, it “would result in significant risk to all of our homeland security,” Samantha Vinograd, acting assistant secretary for counterterrorism, threat prevention and law enforcement in DHS’s policy and strategy office, told a House committee. “As such, DHS in partnership with other members of the administration will in the very near future be providing to Congress a legislative proposal to seek reauthorization to address the elevating and escalating threat landscape.”
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA), through the C-UAS authorities granted DHS and the Department of Justice in a 2018 law, currently is responsible for detecting, tracking and identifying drones operating in and around restricted airspace at the 30 largest U.S. airports.
TSA wants to expand these authorities to more airports and additional modes of transportation such as cruise ships, pipelines, and rail systems, Austin Gould, acting executive assistant administrator for operations support at TSA, told a House Homeland Security Committee panel.
“The current limitations to Core 30 airports, they’re very reactive and they’re for a limited time, limited duration, for a very discrete event,” he said, adding that the other transportation modes are “all subject to the same nefarious drone activities we see at an airport.”
Concerns about drone activity near airports was prompted by an incident in late 2018 at an airport near London that shutdown local flight operations for more than a day, resulting in an estimated tens of millions of dollars in losses. That incident was followed shortly thereafter in 2019 by a drone sighting in airspace near Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey that suspended operations for more than an hour.
TSA is currently operating a test bed to detect, track and identify drone activity at Miami International Airport using radar, thermal imaging and electro-optical cameras. The agency is expanding the testing to Los Angeles International Airport. Gould offered enormous numbers of small UAS that the technology is picking up.
“In Miami specifically, we had about 105 reports of UAS in the last year from a visual reporting perspective,” he said. “Using technology down there, the number exceeds 20,000. Now these are not all near the airport. It’s in the greater Miami area but many of them are clustered around the airport and pursuing our detect, track and identify capability will help us address that problem.”
Gould said the testbed “allows us to quantify the problem in the airport environment and to expand it to other airports.” It also allows the agency to assess the effectiveness of different technologies, he said.
Overall, in 2021, nearly 2,000 UAS events were reported to TSA, Gould said, 110 percent increase over 2020. Of these, about 1,500 were near airports, of which 686 were near Core 30 airports. Since the start of 2021, in 49 instances an aircraft had to take “evasive action,” with five of these involving commercial flights, he said.
TSA currently does not have the authority to mitigate potential drone threats near airports, which refers to the ability to bring a drone down by some means.
Even Customs and Border Protection, which frequently operates in remote border and coastal areas, has seen its assets impacted by small drones. Dennis Michelini, deputy executive assistant commissioner in CBP’s Office of Air and Marine Operations, told the panel that some of his helicopters have had to avoid potential incidents with drones while airborne.
The Preventing Emerging Threats Act, the 2018 law that gave the limited C-UAS authorities to DHS and DoJ and which lapses on Oct. 5 2022, does permit mitigation techniques. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has employed mitigation using radio frequency to disrupt communications between a small drone and its operator to essentially force the UAS to land.
CBP operates about a half-dozen Titan C-UAS systems supplied by Citadel Defense, a BlueHalo company, and typically uses them in different locations and to provide security at certain events. Whether the agency operates C-UAS systems from other providers is unclear.
Michelini said that there are two “covered” locations along the southwest border where CBP monitors for illegal drone activity.
During a recent five-month period, Michelini said that CBP’s sensors observed near the southwest border more than 30,500 drone flights, which includes legal activity by hobbyists and commercial users, as well as criminal operators. Almost 15 percent—4,458 drone flights—of this activity occurred at night, which is in violation of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) daytime drone flight regulations and nearly half flew above FAA regulations limiting altitudes to 400 feet, some reaching 4,000 feet, he said.
Of the total flights, Michelini said only about 4,300 of the detected drones were encountered for the first time, which means “the use of drones for illicit cross border activity is not only widespread, but also organized and integrated element of TCO (Transnational Criminal Organization) operations,” Michelini said in is written statement.
Small, off-the-shelf drones sold in retail stores and online have their own unique electronic signatures, which allows detection and tracking systems to identify the make and model of a UAS during an encounter.
TCOs are using drones to conduct surveillance of law enforcement personnel and their activities, which gives them situational awareness to “evade detection” so they can move drugs and people into the U.S. illegally, he said. These criminal groups also use the payload capacity of small drones to move illegal goods into the U.S., he added.
A hobbyist drone can carry about a 4.5-pound payload, which if it is fentanyl that is 10 percent pure, equals 80,000 doses, Michelini said.
As UAS technology improves, the C-UAS authorities will need to keep step, he said.
CBP also “has seen evidence” that TCOs want to use larger drones that can carry bigger payloads, are more maneuverable, fly higher, further and for longer times, which in turn requires “persistent domain awareness,” Michelini said.
Michelini said that in some instances CBP has arrested people conducting illegal drone activity.
Since receiving its counter-drone authorities in 2018, DHS has deployed C-UAS for operations 246 times and has also conducted 30 research, test and evaluation events using the technology, Samantha Vinograd, acting assistant secretary for counterterrorism, threat prevention and law enforcement in DHS’s policy and strategy office, told the committee.
Rep. Lou Correa (D-Calif.), who chaired the hearing to examine the existing C-UAS authorities and the need for a new bill, said he would hold a closed hearing on more sensitive information related to counter-drone activities and needs.