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Category Archives: Aviation Security

Drone Wars: Is TSA Seriously Going To Shoot Down Drones Over US Airports?

Drone Wars: Is TSA Seriously Going To Shoot Down Drones Over US Airports?

On July 17 of this year, police responded to a drone with fireworks attached to it discovered on top of a building in downtown Los Angeles. Further details have not been released about the incident, but it does represent just one of the many threats drone operations can represent to airports, infrastructure and people.

In another lesser-known incident, a white hack hacker company was challenged to penetrate the defenses of a large computer security company. Thinking not just outside the box but also outside of the building, the hackers used two drones to launch their attack, one carrying a MacBook Pro, the other an ethernet cable. The drones were able to easily fly over the building’s defensive perimeters to the rooftop where one drone swapped out the computer lines, plugging them into the other’s laptop. The laptop collected tons of company data until it’s storage drives were full. The company hired later delivered some very surprising results to the CEO.

There have been numerous incidents in the past two years of drones being used as weapons, including attempted assassinations, shutting down airports, creating economic disruption, used as intimidation, and played a role in various smuggling and terrorist plots. Drones have been used by Hezbollah and ISIS to provide overwatch of sites where they have placed improvised explosive devices in order to better time the detonation when their target drives by. Drones have been employed as simplistic aerial bombing devices by dropping rockets and hand grenades onto ground targets.  The really bad news is that the drone issue is about to become a lot more complex. What about the impact of swarms of drones? What about the micro or nano-sized drones that can stealthily conduct surveillance of a facility, or even be smuggled onto an aircraft to make its way into an essential operating system?

With all these threats, can’t we just start shooting them down? According to a recent Washington Post report, that’s exactly what DHS/TSA is considering giving Air Marshals instruction to do – using Department of Defense equipment to bring down drones near airports (read TSA plans to shoot down drones near airports – The Washington Post).

Let’s just first take that idea right off the table in the name of #stupidity  To put live ordinance over an airport and it’s surroundings endangers the general public even more than the drone itself. The cure should not be worse than the symptom. Plus, there are numerous other technologies out there that won’t have the general citizenry running for their lives and pilots taking defensive action when a Stinger missile launches from the airport towards a $1,200 drone that just violated the airspace. Even a swarm of drones, descending kamikaze-style onto the airfield, shouldn’t be countered with a swarm of bullets and missiles being fired back at them. After all, what goes up must come down… somewhere. There are better ways of protecting our skies from the drone wars.  “Every Battle is Won or Lost Before it is Ever Fought,” stated Sun Tzu. In fact, not having to fight is the best option of all.

There are more important issues to consider here.

Drones are no longer an anomaly. They are very much a part of the National Airspace System and it’s time we address how their operations will integrate from all perspectives, safety, security, and air traffic control.  Google’s Wing is the first drone company to be certified as an “air carrier” by the FAA, allowing it to launch a package-delivery service in Virginia.  The FAA also approved a Part 135 certification, usually used by the air charter companies, to give UPS the ability to for drones to fly at night and carry cargo heavier than 55 pounds. This is only the beginning of the soon to be drone-filled skies over our world.

Drones represent an emerging tool for airport operators. Remote and autonomous controlled snow removal equipment is already being implemented at some airports throughout the world. Several other airports have talked about or even tested the use, of drones for airfield inspections, such as the approach light system, and for perimeter intrusion protection.

The solution to integrating drones needs to be addressed from numerous angles not just one from Homeland Security. This will require a team of individuals including the FAA, TSA, state and local officials, airport operators, air traffic controllers, UAV operators, DOD and private industry. The FAA takes a lot of grief for not jumping on the drone issue sooner, but to their defense, this is an issue that is greater than one agency, and it continues to evolve and change as more and more companies and public agencies figure out other ways to use drones.

Before we can get everyone together to start working on solutions, we need to decide how to get out of each other’s way.

On June 18th, at the American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE) annual conference, an FAA official was briefing, by phone call, the Operations, Safety, Planning, Emergency Management Committee. He informed the committee members that the drone issue, collectively, is being turned over to the TSA. Further, he stated that TSA is stamping Sensitive Security Information (SSI) on all sorts of documents related to drone operations and drone detection systems making it difficult for other agencies to work with them on the issue. I asked several members of TSA leadership about the report, who were also at the conference, and they all said it was the first they’d heard of the policy (but that they would look into it… I guess they are still looking as I have not yet heard back).

I was never able to confirm whether the FAA officials’ claim was true (I mean, I was in the room. I heard the claim and then asked a question to confirm what I’d just heard, so this isn’t hearsay – at least not to me).  I made a few more inquires then let the issue drop, until now.

A TSA spokesperson had this to say in answer to the question of whether TSA is really going to shoot down drones.

“The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is committed to a unified federal response to a persistent disruption of airport operations due to an unmanned aircraft system (UAS). In response to the potential threat to airports by UAS, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), TSA, the Department of Justice, the Department of Defense, and the Federal Aviation Administration drafted an interagency Concept of Operations (CONOPS). The CONOPS designates TSA as the lead federal agency for countering unmanned aircraft systems that pose a persistent disruption of the national airspace, in close coordination with the FAA, other federal partners, the airport authority, and local law enforcement. Under the CONOPS, and pursuant to authority in the Preventing Emerging Threats Act, federal entities will only seek to mitigate a UAS in limited, emergency circumstances in order to ensure the safety and security of the national airspace.”

There’s an important distinction to be made in that last sentence – to ensure the safety and security of national airspace. TSA is focused on security. The FAA is focused on safety, and the airport and aircraft operators have to keep their eye on both, while also watching the bottom line. Let’s generate solutions that can effectively integrate with what the people in the field are dealing with, instead of on sweeping policies that sound good in concept, but aren’t able to be implemented at the operational level.

The FAA did make some progress this spring when they issued changes to the notification requirements for certain drone operations within 5 miles of an airport. The previous requirement was to contact the airport operator or the air traffic control tower. It’s hard to find the number of a control tower so that leaves drone operators calling the airport operator — which the FAA provided no guidance to airport operators, whatsoever, about what to do with this information.

The FAA has always been in control of the airspace traffic (and runways and taxiways at airports with control towers) while the airport operator handles what happening on the rest of the ground. Now, Public and Civil (i.e. government and commercial or business-related drone operations) can apply for a waiver from the FAA to operate within the 5-mile radius of an airport. Even after the policy change however, reports from airport personnel in the field say they are still arguing with some air traffic controllers who don’t want to deal with the issue.

A solution to the drone issue can be found by modeling some existing solutions in our industry, the FAA’s Runway Safety Action Team, the TSA mandated Airport Security Coordinator position, and a National UAV Safety and Security Database.  We can also look to the international community to see how they are handling the issue.

As with many government programs, the Runway Safety Action Team (RSATs) started when numerous airports began their own programs to reduce runway incursions at their airport. Key airport stakeholders provided input, got together to discuss problems and challenges, and working together, reduced the number of runway incursions at their airports. The key to the RSAT is that it was locally built and federally supported.  Eventually, a community of practice started to develop, then the FAA issued an Order that mandated their air traffic offices to start the RSAT program.

The inclusion of industry innovators of drone detection and defense solution providers cannot be overstated. They have already done much of the research necessary to generate effective solutions as has the Department of Defense.

Another solution can be found by looking to aviation security. In the wake of the downing of PSA Flight 1771 by a disgruntled former airline employee and the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, federal legislation created the Airport Security Coordinator (ASC) position. The ASC is the single point of contact to the TSA (from the airport) and is responsible for drafting and implementing the Airport Security Program. For many airports, the ASC role was a collateral duty for someone in the airport operations department but by the mid-90s major airports had created security departments to handle the access control and airport badging process, and ensuring law enforcement response to security issues. After 9/11, the role of the ASC expanded massively.

Similarly, airports must create a UAV Coordinator position and, depending on the size of the airport and the challenges presented by drone activity in the area, be ready for that position to grow in size to a department. Like cybersecurity, the rapid advancement of drone operations and technology means there will soon need to be even more coordination between independent Droneport Operators, and integrating drones based at commercial service and general aviation airports, not to mention challenges we have yet to think of.

A UAV Coordinator needs to understand the threats that drones bring to the airport and their benefits. Terrorist groups Hezbollah and ISIS are already known to have drone capabilities, using them for the battlefield and Improvised Explosive Device surveillance. As drone technology is advancing at a rate similar to the computer industry, it will become easier and easier for terrorists, criminals, and insurgents to obtain their own, larger and more deadly drone technologies. Not to mention the residual effects of all of this electronic data flying around to all these devices, which can cause radio interference problems and open up opportunities for cyber attacks. What happens when a hacker takes over an airport inspection drone, or snow plow, and heads it into an airplane on landing?

All of the collected information on drone detection systems, drone strikes, and other issues should feed into a national database, supplemented by user forums, similar to the way AAAE established user forums to create more interconnected communities of practices across state and national borders. The “UAV Safety and Security Database,” (or whatever you want to call it), should largely be at the For Official Use Only level, and only specific information, after careful consideration, should certain items be classified at the SSI level with an easy-to-use special access approval system.

Internationally, many countries are already taking great strides in the implementation of and the defense against drones. The Warsaw Babice airport in Poland is been connected to DroneRadar UTM. Read Another airport connected to the Polish UTM via DroneRadar. Obtaining permission for drone flights in the Northern part of Warsaw (ATZ EPBC) has been simplified, and digitalized. Procedural control, approval, and modification for drone flight activity is done through the DroneRadar system, via two-way, non-verbal communication.

Other cities in countries such as Belgium, Bulgaria, Germany, Switzerland, the U.K., China, Japan, South Korea, the UAE, and Mexico are also implementing drone approval and mitigation procedures. Even right here in the U.S., the FAA awarded a drone services company with approval to fly in and around Boston, offering on-demand commercial drone services throughout the area.

The key to the drone issues, which will continue to evolve and become more challenging, is to establish these practices and procedures first before it gets too late.

Jeffrey C. Price

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