The Federal Aviation Administration recently announced new restrictions on drone flights over a maximum security federal prison in Illinois. When this new “no drone zone” goes into effect, the Thomson Penitentiary in Illinois will become the 20th federal prison to obtain a drone flight restriction.
That’s good news for prison officials. Over the last few years, criminals have increasingly used drones to smuggle drugs and contraband over prison walls, sometimes with dire consequences. A 75-inmate brawl broke out at Ohio’s Mansfield Correctional Institution when a drone delivered an illicit package to the wrong prison gang.
But it’s not just prisons that are experiencing the increased threat from drones. They have been sighted in the flight lines of airports, witnessed smuggling drugs across the southern border, and have even been used to surveil and disrupt law enforcement operations. Overseas terrorists, meanwhile, have weaponized commercially-available drones and used them to great effect.
Public officials are absolutely right to take the dangers of drones seriously. But the current approach to securing critical infrastructure and facilities against these threats is inadequate, for two critical reasons.
First, the current process for designating no drone zones is too slow, and leaves a substantial number of vulnerable targets and critical infrastructure sites without even the basic protection of a flight restriction. The FAA has imposed nearly 1,400 active national security drone flight restrictions covering select sites such as military facilities, a handful of iconic monuments like the Statute of Liberty and several major infrastructure sites such as the Hoover Dam.
Other temporary restrictions are triggered over certain major events. That is not nothing, but compared to the full scope of public and private sites — to say nothing of public events — that may be deserving of drone flight restrictions, it’s a drop in the bucket.
In 2016, Congress directed the Department of Transportation to rectify that by developing a procedure for critical infrastructure operators to apply for drone flight restrictions. To date, no such process has been established.
Second, law enforcement officials have no capability or legal authority to enforce these flight restrictions in real time. In fact, U.S. law prevents any law enforcement official from engaging or interdicting a threatening drone. If they do, federal law may actually expose them to criminal charges for — unbelievably — damaging or destroying an aircraft. Other statutes barring computer hacking and signal jamming may also expose officials to criminal liability for using counter-drone equipment to safeguard the public.
Interdicting drones will be critical to providing security against drone-related threats. There is no reason to believe that bans alone will work to deter bad actors, or even reckless operators willing to gamble that they can fly without being caught.
Many examples bear this out. The FAA has long barred drones from flying over airports or in adjacent controlled airspace, yet pilots frequently report drone sightings in restricted areas. The Washington metropolitan area is a no-drone zone, but that didn’t stop a drunken federal employee from crashing his drone on the White House lawn.
The FAA similarly bars drone flights over sporting events, yet they have overflown a number of stadiums during games. One drone even dropped leaflets over the Oakland Coliseum and the 49ers’ stadium. To tackle these emerging challenges, America needs a comprehensive plan for counter-drone operations, one that clearly identifies which sites will be protected, authorizes law enforcement personnel to engage hostile or threatening drones, and appropriately trains them to safely and responsibly carry out this mission.
Present counter-drone proposals would empower federal officials alone — a necessary step to be sure, but ultimately insufficient. State and local law enforcement will need counter-drone authority, as well; after all, they are typically the first to respond to any threat to public safety. That will be as true for drones as anything else.
States and localities have another crucial role to play in the drone safety arena: setting reasonable restrictions on drone activity in low-altitude airspace within their own communities. On any given day there are countless school sporting events, parades and local emergencies that may warrant temporary drone flight restrictions. The FAA simply does not have the manpower or resources to do this job alone.
Providing security against drone threats is an increasingly pressing issue, particularly as drones continue to proliferate in American airspace. To be effective, we need to empower federal, state, and local law enforcement without delay.
This piece originally appeared in The Roanoke Times