Nov. 1, 2016
Buoyed by the FAA’s new Part 107 regulations governing the operation of small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) for commercial purposes, there is no longer any doubt about the widespread proliferation of sUAS throughout the country. One result of this is the growing concern over the possibility of unpleasant encounters between manned aircraft and unauthorized, “rogue” UAS, particularly in close proximity to airports and other high-risk environments.
Several technologies, many with origins in military use, already exist to keep UAS away from sensitive areas. In addition to GPS-derived geo-fencing (already offered by some UAS manufacturers) these systems include radio frequency detection and interception; radar, visual and thermal assessment; and acoustic equipment.
The legality and risks of utilizing any capability to detect and interfere with unauthorized drones are huge public policy issues that need to be explored.
These systems may be used to prohibit UAS flight within certain prohibited areas, direct the UAS away from the area, or to intercept the signal between the UAS and operator to triangulate the operator’s location. However, each of these strategies has potential ramifications.
“The legality and risks of utilizing any capability to detect and interfere with unauthorized drones are huge public policy issues that need to be explored,” said attorney Ted Ellett, a former FAA chief counsel and co-founder and co-chair of the Global Unmanned Aircraft Systems practice at the law firm of Hogan Lovells. “It’s a federal crime to destroy or disable an aircraft, and a violation of federal communications laws to interfere with or ‘hack’ into a wireless communications signal. You’re talking about that type of action when speaking of interdiction and mitigation.
“Even tracking involves capturing a signal,” he continued, “which may violate federal wiretap laws prohibiting the capture of encoded electronic signals, as well as any number of state laws. That curtails the use of these technologies, even if the goal is a beneficial one.”
Additional questions center around the authority of local and state law enforcement to intercede in such cases, as well as their limits on detaining operators and confiscating equipment. Ellett recommended that airport managers will need to work closely with their local authorities, and the FAA, when dealing with an unauthorized UAS.
“Those government entities have police and/or enforcement powers that airports don’t have,” he added. “As of today, private individuals and entities generally do not have the legal authority to interfere with these unmanned aircraft, and such actions could cause a backlash against efforts to find responsible and mutually beneficial solutions.”
Safe and Responsible Mitigation
At the direction of Congress, the FAA is working with several federal agencies – including the Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security – as part of its Pathfinder program focused on detecting and identifying unmanned aircraft systems flying too closely to airports.
The FAA is conducting extensive outreach to UAS operators to ensure that they are knowledgeable regarding regulations applicable to their operations.
“The FAA will ensure that technologies are developed, tested and deployed to mitigate threats posed by errant or hostile unmanned aircraft system operations without adversely affecting safe airport operations,” explained FAA Director, Office of Airport Safety and Standards Michael O’Donnell.
Among the criteria this program measures are the number and type of unauthorized UAS operations detected, the results of any mitigation efforts, FAA enforcement cases and any technical failures. The results will inform recommendations for additional safety and operational standards, O’Donnell noted.
“After the FAA successfully establishes this program, it may use unmanned aircraft detection systems to find and mitigate unauthorized unmanned aircraft operations that pose a risk to aviation safety,” he said.
As airport operators and other stakeholders await such guidance, several educational resources are already available for UAS operators to ensure they don’t run afoul of current regulations. These include the restrictions and procedures outlined in the FAA’s recently published Part 107 rule, and best operating practices outlined through the FAA’s UAS website. The free B4UFly smartphone app also enables UAS pilots to quickly determine whether there are any restrictions or requirements in effect at the location where they want to fly.
The FAA’s Pathfinder strategy also includes cooperative research and development agreements between the agency and industry partners to evaluate the technological ability to detect and identify sUAS near airports. One of those partners, CACI International, Inc., offers a system called SkyTracker to detect, identify and track signals from unauthorized UAS operations, by establishing an electronic perimeter around airports and other critical infrastructure.
SkyTracker provides customers the capability to initiate countermeasures that do not interfere with legitimate electronics or communications systems in the area, or with UAS that are being operated responsibly.
“SkyTracker provides customers the capability to initiate countermeasures that do not interfere with legitimate electronics or communications systems in the area, or with UAS that are being operated responsibly,” explained Alan Kraft, CACI’s Senior Business Development Executive, Counter UAS and Cyber Security. “It can be used day or night and in any weather condition; the system is scalable and can cover small and large areas, and can discern between offending UAS and non-UAS flying objects.”
Education and Enforcement
As regulators, UAS manufacturers, and other stakeholders work on developing effective solutions, they also are engaging with UAS operators and local authorities to identify best practices and mitigate the risk from rogue UAS in the current environment.
“Ultimately, the issue boils down to education and enforcement,” said Clara Bennett, executive director for the Boca Raton Airport Authority. “There’s a lot of confusion over how airports should handle these concerns, including the question of liability once airport managers are notified of a UAS operating nearby. Education on all parts of the system – operators, local law enforcement, airport managers – identifying the roles will help mitigate risk and educate everyone, and the more opportunity we have to coordinate, the better we’re able to mitigate risk.”
There’s a lot of confusion over how airports should handle these concerns, including the question of liability once airport managers are notified of a UAS operating nearby.
O’Donnell cited the FAA’s discussions with local authorities, through the agency’s Law Enforcement Assistance Program (LEAP), as one of its most important initiatives for disseminating information and ensuring the safety of the airspace. FAA personnel trained in the needs and procedures of law enforcement (LE) are organized by region, and are available to assist LE personnel with information and guidance.
“FAA outreach to law enforcement agencies has focused on providing more information on LEAP and how its agents can assist LE, including visits by FAA personnel to LE locations and providing guidance resources,” he added. “The FAA compliance philosophy, which informs the field’s response to reckless UAS operations, includes numerous options for enforcement, including educational letters and civil penalties which may include certificate revocation, and the FAA is also conducting extensive outreach to UAS operators to ensure that they are knowledgeable regarding regulations applicable to their operations.”
Bennett noted that, despite these challenges, most airport operators are not opposed to seeing UAS operating in the nation’s airspace. “At the macro level, there’s actually a lot of enthusiasm and optimism,” she continued. “Solutions will be found through education, collaboration and technology, which will go a very long way to address operational issues at the local level.
“Furthermore, airport directors are very interested in UAS, as this emerging field is seen by many of them as the next generation of our aviation industry,” Bennett concluded. “Many of us are excited about the long-term opportunities presented in UAS, including the need for new pilots and facilities. It’s in our mutual best interest to find solutions, and to elevate the mindset for individual operators as important and responsible users of our national airspace.”
NBAA-BACE Attendees: Learn More About Rogue UAS in the Innovation Zone
Concerns about unauthorized UAS operations in the vicinity of airports will be one of the hot topics discussed during a Business Aviation Insider-sponsored education session in the Innovation Zone at this year’s NBAA’s Business Aviation Convention & Exhibition (NBAA-BACE).
On Tuesday, Nov. 1 from 4:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., the session titled “Protecting Airport Air Traffic From Errant Drones” will examine the technical progress of the FAA’s Pathfinder program, as well as the legal and policy implications of implementing these technologies. The airport, legal, cybersecurity and regulatory experts consulted for this article will serve as the session’s panelists, and they are:
- Clara Bennett, executive director, Boca Raton Airport Authority, who leads a team of dedicated aviation professionals in executing business, operations, marketing and development programs at Boca Raton Airport (BCT).
- Ted Ellett, co-founder and co-chair of the Global Unmanned Aircraft Systems practice at Hogan Lovells, where he is partner. A former FAA chief counsel, he has been an industry leader in crafting regulatory constructs for innovative aviation business concepts, operations and technologies.
- Alan Kraft, a veteran in the development of cyber solutions who serves as the senior business development executive for CACI’s National Cyber and Solutions Group, where he helped develop the CACI Counter Unmanned Aircraft Systems strategy.
- Michael J. O’Donnell, an accredited airport executive with 12 years of airport management experience at several general aviation and commercial service airports. As director, FAA Office of Airport Safety and Standards, he is responsible for all airport program matters related to standards for airport design, construction, maintenance, operations and safety.