Threats to public safety and security from drones will continue to grow in the coming years yet the federal bureaucracy is moving too slow to take advantage of its authorities to test and deploy technologies to combat these concerns, according to a final report from an advisory panel to the Department of Homeland Security.

“From our view the accelerated pace of technological change in today’s global environment creates both opportunities and risks,” Cathy Lanier, the co-chair of the panel, said on Monday. “The opportunity to capitalize on the value of the value of these technologies and the risk that we will not be able to keep up with the pace of change.”

Since spring 2019, the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice have tested systems to detect, track and mitigate threats from unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) consistent with authorities granted by Congress, says the report. But the report says it is cumbersome and time consuming just to get the necessary approvals to test.

“For each test site, extensive documentation was necessary to meet the requirements of the legislation and obtain the approval of either the Attorney General or the Secretary of Homeland Security,” says the Homeland Security Advisory Council (HSAC) final report on UAS by the Emerging Technologies Subcommittee. “In some cases, the process took up to eight weeks to complete.”

“The current legal and policy framework is not agile enough to support UAS/C-UAS operations and essentially moots the authorities granted by bureaucratic processes that inhibit effective threat identification, response, and mitigation in time sensitive situations,” the report says. C-UAS refers to counter drone systems.

Lanier, currently the head of security for the National Football League and former police chief for Washington, D.C., said that the time it takes to process the documentation required to obtain approvals to test C-UAS systems has “dropped fairly significantly” from the original eight weeks. However, echoing the findings of the report, she said that “the process is still too complex and is not agile enough to support counter UAS operations in time sensitive situations,” then added, “we still aren’t where we need to be.”

Congress in October 2018 passed a reauthorization bill for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that included another piece of legislation that gave certain personnel within DHS and DoJ authority to detect, identify, monitor, and mitigate threats from UAS.

The report points out, as have other reports as well as members of Congress, state, local, tribal and territorial (SLTT) governments, other federal law enforcement agencies, and the private sector don’t have these counter UAS authorities.

“Consequently, these Federal and SLTT agencies, which may be in the best position to deter, detect, and investigate unauthorized UAS, remain subject to the same federal criminal laws that previously restricted DHS and DoJ C-UAS activities,” says the report.

The Emerging Technologies Subcommittee is also co-chaired by former Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen, who is now with Booz Allen Hamilton [BAH]. The HSAC approved the report during an open teleconference on Monday, sending it to Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf for his consideration.

Lanier said that UAS systems continue to be more “capable and sophisticated” and easy to use, meaning the “barriers to entry…are quickly diminishing.” By 2030, she said, the national airspace will be “fully integrated” and drones will be operating near “airports and other sensitive sites.”

Combating future challenges from UAS will also require integrated solutions, the report says, adding that “only advanced integrated platforms will be effective for detection and tracking, while kinetic systems will be needed for interception.”

The report makes more than two dozen recommendations that Lanier broke down into three buckets. The first she described is the need to get policies in place faster, noting that the FAA bill was approved 18 months ago yet “clear policy and doctrine is not mature and complete. This needs immediate attention.”

Second, she said, is the need for national standards and C-UAS policy, which will help other federal and SLTT agencies once they have the authorities to counter drones. The report recommends that DHS “encourage Congress” to provide C-UAS authorities to other federal and SLTT agencies, have DHS sort out whether private entities such as stadiums and airports can acquire and store UAS detection, tracking and identification systems that DoD and DoJ can operate if need be, and have DHS support the FAA in establishing UAS detection and mitigation system standards.

The final category is “future actions” such as expanding mitigation authority to other federal and SLTT agencies more given they will usually be the first responders, Lanier said.

Through a White House-led interagency process, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) last year was given the lead within the federal government for providing counter-drone protection to airports. However, there has been pushback from some Republicans in the House who point out that the legislative authorities don’t apply to TSA.

Lanier said the fact that the 2018 bill excludes TSA and SLTTs using mitigation technologies “essentially eliminates counter UAS capabilities at the vast majority of mass gatherings and commercial airports nationwide.”

In the areas of UAS threat mitigation, the report recommends that drones be required to broadcast their location and identification in real-time as a means to track authorized drone operations to aid law enforcement and regulators in ensuring that drones don’t pose safety and security threats and to better sort out unauthorized UAS operators.

The FAA is already moving out with a rulemaking process for drone identification called Remote ID, but implementation could be as much as five years away (Defense Daily, Dec. 26, 2019).

The report also says that future detection and defeat capabilities should focus on “immutable characteristics” of drones such as airframe mass and on-board electronics because capabilities that focus on radio frequency, electro-optical, infrared, acoustic and GPS “will likely become less effective” in detection, tracking and identification, the report and Lanier said.

Kinetic, jamming and spoofing means to defeat drones will also be “challenged,” she said.