To counter growing threats posed by small drones operating near airports, whether due to ignorance or criminal activity, state and local law enforcement agencies need legal authorities from Congress to be able to mitigate the impacts of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) on airport operations, according to the final report of a task force that examined the issue of unauthorized UAS around airports.

“The deputation of counter-UAS authority to these officials should begin with a pilot program overseen by the Department of Justice in consultation with the Department of Homeland Security, in the U.S., and the DoJ and Public Safety in Canada, to establish protocols, training, and practice exercises,” says the Blue Ribbon Task Force on UAS Mitigation at Airports, which is making recommendations for authorities in the U.S. and Canada.

Congress in late 2019 gave the U.S. DoJ and DHS the authority to counter threats from small UAS around “covered assets” domestically, which can be critical infrastructures such as airports. Those authorities were previously largely limited to the Defense and Energy Departments in terms of protecting assets in the U.S., although the Secret Service, which is part of DHS, can also take action to mitigate drone threats.

Federal agencies typically are not the first responders at an airport and usually wait until needed, Michael Huerta, a former administrator of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), said on Wednesday.

“The task force also noted that the federal government recognizes state and local law enforcement as first responders for unauthorized unmanned aircraft events. In fact, federal authorities generally will not deploy resources to an airport until local law enforcement resources are exhausted,” Huerta said in a brief speech presenting the final report at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) that was live-streamed on the airport’s Facebook [FB] page.

Huerta, who co-chaired the task force, also said that the FAA, which provides air traffic management for airports and airlines nationwide, needs funding to be able to track drones at airports.

“The task force recommends that congressional action must be taken to give the FAA the appropriate resources on a consistent basis to engage in the lead role in monitoring unmanned aircraft traffic in and around airports,” he said.

Airports have increasingly found themselves encumbered by sightings of UAS operating nearby, sometimes with costly impacts. Hundreds of flights into and out of Gatwick Airport in London were canceled last December due to nearby drone operations and earlier this year flights were disrupted at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey due to potential drone sightings.

Huerta was joined by Deborah Flint, his co-chair and CEO of Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA), who said that since April 2016 when LAWA began tracking drone sightings, there have been 205 sightings at LAX.

Flint said that in many of the incidents, the drones have been “within 300-feet of aircraft.” Yet despite broad cooperation and coordination between various agencies and organizations, only one operator has been identified in the 205 sightings, she said.

“This is a complex and new frontier,” Flint said, highlighting that the “voices of airports” in the U.S. and Canada “must be heard and responded to in this new frontier.”

The task force in July released an interim report that decried the lack of federal guidance for airports to deal with the legal and technological issues presented by threats from drones and recommended a standard approach for airports to adopt counter-UAS detection and mitigation technologies.

The report is viewed by the UAS industry as a tool to establish the safety mechanisms needed for airports to deal with potential drone threats while continuing to enable the growth of the UAS industry.

“The Blue Ribbon Task Force has provided us with clear steps forward to keep the skies around airports secure still allowing the burgeoning UAS industry to flourish,” Brian Wynne, president and CEO of the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, said in a statement.

The report also includes guiding principles for airports in the U.S. and Canada to help them plan for UAS incursions, “whether careless, clueless, or criminal.” The principles also recommend that airports drill their detection and response capabilities just like they do other emergency procedures.

The report makes over two dozen recommendations, including having the FAA create a rule for remote identification of drones to allow the agency and others monitoring local airspace to identify the drone and its operator. Such a rule is also expected to help determine if a drone is being used for nefarious purposes. The rulemaking process is underway but has been delayed.