Work done by the Defense Department to thwart potential threats posed by remotely piloted aircraft to its facilities in the U.S. is laying the “foundation” for the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice to rollout similar capabilities in the homeland once they’ve been granted authorities to do, an official with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said on Wednesday.

Since receiving its own authorities from Congress in December 2016 to counter unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) at certain domestic installations, the DoD has deployed these capabilities in two locations over the past year, Steven Mucklow, a DoD official, told a House panel. He said the rollout has been “deliberate” in part because of the close work with partners and to ensure the capabilities are “safely” introduced.

CACI International sells its SkyTracker Counter UAS solutions for detecting, tracking and mitigating potential drone threats. Graphic: CACI International
CACI International sells its SkyTracker Counter UAS solutions for detecting, tracking and mitigating potential drone threats. Graphic: CACI International

Angela Stubblefield, the deputy associate administrator for Security and Hazardous Materials Safety at the FAA, said DoD has only deployed CUAS systems to two locations because the department, which is working closely with her agency, is being “deliberative” and is creating a “foundation” that is being applied to the Department of Energy (DoE), and, if granted authorities, DHS and Justice. Like DoD, the DoE also has limited authorities to deploy CUAS capabilities.

In response to a question from Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), who commented that the slow rollout of CUAS capabilities by DoD at its U.S. facilities might suggest it will take decades for the department and eventually DHS and DoJ to protect domestic facilities from UAS threats, Stubblefield replied that with the “hard work” by DoD “that will hopefully be able to expedite” efforts by other agencies.

“With the foundation in place, we should be down to working on the more site specific stuff, and even with DoD, once we lock in those foundational pieces of guidance, concepts of operations, notification procedures, then moving site to site goes much more quickly,” Stubblefield told Larsen during a roundtable on CUAS issues held by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation.

Mucklow, who is special assistant to the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Homeland Defense Integration and Defense Support of Civil Authorities, and Stubblefield said DoD and FAA collaborate closely, often daily, on potential impacts of domestic CUAS deployments on the national airspace. Mucklow also said the same CUAS systems are being used at the two facilities and that additional capabilities are about to begin testing at other domestic installations.

“What we’re moving to is that combination of capabilities at our installations because no one capability is going to do the job for us,” Mucklow told the panel.

Most of the CUAS technologies on the market have been developed for DoD use and there are concerns that as these capabilities—in particular those used to mitigate or disrupt threats posed by drones—are acquired and deployed for domestic applications, they could interfere with existing electronic systems used in everyday operations and life. While the CUAS technologies are non-kinetic, they typically work by jamming or spoofing UAS control signals or by disrupting GPS signals.

David Silver, vice president for Civil Aviation at the Aerospace Industries Association, told the panel that there have been instances where radio wave technologies have caused the loss of autopilot systems on manned aircraft and recently a grocery store’s door was opening and closing due to radio wave interference.

“We have a lot of concerns anytime we’re talking about the use of jamming technology,” noting that these technologies can continue traveling for a ways before dissipating. “So without understanding how those radio frequency waves are going to affect aircraft, we put the aircraft at risk.” He also said that with the blocking and jamming of GPS technology, it’s important not to do spoofing, which can lead to “pilots getting bad information.”

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in June approved bipartisan legislation aimed at giving DHS and DoJ authorities to counter UAS in limited circumstances. Further movement of the bill in the Senate is still subject to getting agreement from other committees with jurisdiction over relevant departments.

Stubblefield said the FAA supports the legislation, adding that it contains adequate provisions for her agency to be involved in ensuring that CUAS systems are deployed safely. While the Senate bill isn’t law, at least not yet, she said DHS and the DoJ are assessing on what assets would be covered by the legislation.

Once the two departments have a first cut at areas that would need protection from malicious drone threats, then the FAA would provide risk assessments related to air traffic in the area and the specific CUAS technologies that would be used to help ensure the appropriateness of any solution, Stubblefield said.

In addition to providing authorities for the use of CUAS capabilities in the homeland, the Senate bill, Preventing Emerging Threats Act of 2018 (S. 2836), would also enable domestic testing of systems to mitigate and disrupt potential drone threats. The DHS Science and Technology Directorate has a unit that is specifically addressing the use of UAS by DHS components and first responders and the need to counter these systems as well.

While the FAA has done testing for detection and tracking of drones near some airports, there still needs to be testing of systems to counter the UAS, not just around airports, but in dense urban environments and other areas such as in border security applications, all of which present their own sets of challenges, Anh Duong, the program executive officer for UAS at S&T, told Defense Daily in an interview in June.

There still isn’t a lot of data on the testing and use of CUAS systems, particularly in urban conditions, Duong said.

Stubblefield and other panelists at the roundtable are keen on having commercial off-the-shelf drones be equipped with remote identification features so that detection and tracking systems that would be used by federal and even local law enforcement agencies could identify whether a UAS operating in a restricted area might be a threat or just on a wayward flight path. If the remote ID capability included information about the owner, authorities might also be able to contact whoever is controlling the drone and work with them to remove it from an area.

Mucklow said during his opening statement that DoD that the threats from commercially-acquired drones is increasing globally. He said in 2017 there were more than 75 documented UAS incursions into prohibited airspace in the U.S., adding that there were probably more undocumented incursions.

Stubblefield cautioned that it’s unknown how many of these incursions were hostile, adding that they weren’t able to locate the operator to find out why the UAS were operating where they shouldn’t.