Just months before existing legislation expires that provides the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice with limited authorities to detect, and in some cases defeat, threats from small drones in the homeland, a bipartisan pair of senators will soon introduce a new bill to extend, expand and strengthen the counter-drone permissions.
Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said on Thursday that he and fellow committee member Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who authored the 2018 bill granting DHS and DoJ their existing counter-unmanned aircraft system (C-UAS) authorities, will introduce a new bill in the coming weeks and that he will “work to ensure” that the current authorities don’t expire in October.
Johnson’s bill, the Preventing Emerging Threats Act, expires on Oct. 5.
Johnson said he was “frustrated” that he couldn’t provide more authorities with his original bill and said the top priority of new C-UAS legislation proposed by the Biden administration in April should be to give the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) the authority to mitigate threats from drones in restricted airspace in and around airports.
Samantha Vinograd, acting assistant secretary for counterterrorism, threat prevention and law enforcement in the DHS policy office, responded that “DHS is deeply supportive of TSA getting the authority to mitigate drones around airports.”
In fact, the administration’s proposed legislation would expand DHS’s and DoJ’s authorities to mitigate drone threats to airports. TSA currently has authorities to detect, track and identify small UAS at airports and is conducting related testing at Miami International Airport.
Vinograd, in her opening statement, highlighted widespread criminal and misuse of drones around the country. She said that since 2021, TSA has reported nearly 2,000 drone sightings in and around U.S. airports, with 63 incidents requiring pilots to take evasive action, including four involving commercial aircraft.
Since 2021, U.S. airports have had to stop operations three times due to drone incidents and, in 2021, there were over 30 partial operational suspensions, causing “millions of dollars in economic damage,” she said.
Peters said that drone sightings and incidents around airports “demonstrate the severity of the threat posed by UAS and if we do not act it could only be a matter of time before someone who is recklessly operating this technology causes an accident that can have catastrophic effects.”
Transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) are also using small drones to bring drugs and contraband across U.S. borders and to monitor local law enforcement activities, Vinograd said, noting that between August 2021 and May 2022, Customs and Border Protection has detected more than 8,000 illegal drone flights across the southern border, which is nearly 900 per month. CBP has seized various drugs, including methamphetamine and fentanyl, that criminals have attempted to deliver into the U.S. via drones, she said, and warned that “TCOs are pursuing the use of larger drones with increased speed, range, and payload capacity, to fly faster, higher, farther and with more contraband in an effort to evade CBP and law enforcement.”
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas so far has authorized three areas along the southwest border where CBP can conduct C-UAS operations and four more are in the works, including one that should have final approval within a few weeks, Vinograd said.
Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) complained that the approval process is taking too long. He said during a visit to the southern border a few months ago Border Patrol agents in one area told him it took them months to get C-UAS equipment, and asked why it takes so long.
She replied that there is a lot of coordination required with the Federal Aviation Administration, adding that there are different complexities with different operational areas. The government is making sure that “this equipment can be safely used and operated in that airspace,” she said.
Tonya Coultas, deputy associate administrator for security at the FAA, said in some cases a temporary flight restriction can take days to be issued by her agency and in other cases longer, although she couldn’t put a timeline on how long it can take.
The administration’s C-UAS legislative proposal is part of a Domestic Counter-Unmanned Aircraft Systems National Action Plan.
In addition to giving TSA expanded counter-drone authorities at airports, the legislative proposal would grant state, local, tribal and territorial (SLTT) law enforcement agencies and critical infrastructure owners and operators permission to detect drones and would create a federally-sponsored program to conduct 12 pilot evaluations annually for five years for SLTT agencies to conduct UAS mitigation activities. It would also allow critical infrastructure owners and operators to buy authorized C-UAS equipment that federal or SLTT law enforcers could use to protect their facilities.
Brad Wiegmann, deputy assistant attorney general in DoJ’s National Security Division, pointed to a yawning gap between the C-UAS protections the FBI currently provides and the greater national need.
So far, the FBI has performed 70 drone detection and mitigation operations at various large events such as the Super Bowl and New Year’s Eve festivities in Times Square, amounting to less than a percent of the more than 121,000 events that state, local and federal officials have asked to be assessed so that C-UAS equipment can be used, Wiegmann said.
In the 70 operations, the FBI detected 974 unauthorized drones flying in flight restricted areas, located the operator 279 times, and attempted to mitigate 50 drones, he said.
“These numbers make clear that the demand for such support to protect our communities has far outstripped the federal government’s limited resources and that we cannot do this alone,” Wiegmann said in stating his support for new legislation extending C-UAS authorities to SLTT law enforcement agencies.