UK’s Drone Debacle Has Lessons for the U.S.

COMMENTARY Technology

UK’s Drone Debacle Has Lessons for the U.S.

Jan 18th, 2019 4 min read

Commentary By

Jason Snead @JasonWSnead

Senior Policy Analyst

Jacob Paolillo

Spring 2019 member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation

The massive drone interruptions at Heathrow and Gatwick airports have sparked important policy reform efforts in the U.K. NurPhoto / Contributor/Getty Images

In the past three weeks, unauthorized drone flights temporarily shut down two of London’s largest airports, impacting tens of thousands of fliers.

The incidents starkly revealed how vulnerable critical infrastructure and other potential targets are to drone threats—not just in the United Kingdom, but here in the United States as well.

The interruptions at Gatwick and Heathrow airports sparked a review of the U.K.’s existing drone regulations, culminating in a large-scale government push to empower police and to develop the counter-drone technology needed to detect and disrupt unlawful drone conduct. 

In the past year, the U.S. Congress has implemented similar measures through the Preventing Emerging Threats Act, but more remains to be done. Congress should follow the example of the U.K. on this issue by empowering state and local enforcement with the authority to protect their communities.

In a 66-page document, the U.K. outlined its plans to grant new powers to police to prevent drone misuse. Police will now have the ability to land, seize, and search drones, as well as the authority to request evidence in pursuit of suspicious activities. 

Police can also issue fines to those who violate regulations. Some of the proposed fineable offenses include flying a drone that weighs more than 250 grams without first completing an online drone pilot competency test or failing to heed a law enforcement order to land a drone.

The Preventing Emerging Threats Act proposed similar steps, extending the right to track and seize unlawful drones to the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security.  

Unlike in the U.K., however, state and local authorities in the U.S. remain severely constrained in their ability to police drone activity. Police can, depending upon state and local laws, use unmanned aircraft systems to monitor and record, as they did at the New Year’s Eve ball drop in New York City this year, but they cannot legally interdict and disable a drone that poses a threat to public safety—that’s a privilege limited to the federal government. 

The U.K. government has also made strides working with manufacturers to develop technology to mitigate threats from reckless or malicious drone operators. One such technology is “geo-fencing,” a software-based solution that prevents drones from flying in certain restricted areas. Another is to require the installation of a tracking unit in each drone. 

U.S. authorities are exploring similar avenues, including the Federal Aviation Administration’s ongoing efforts to develop a remote identification standard that would create, in effect, electronic license plates to permit the identification of drones and their operators.

While these are clearly necessary steps for the safe integration of drones into the airspace, it is unlikely that someone determined to commit a crime using a drone—like the as-yet-unidentified culprits who deliberately disrupted Gatwick airport—would comply with identification requirements or airspace restrictions. Hence, authorities need effective counter-drone equipment that can identify and interdict hostile drones.

At Gatwick and Heathrow, the U.K. relied on the military-grade Israeli-developed “Drone Dome” to counter the threats. Gatwick and Heathrow airports invested millions of pounds in similar technology. While that may effectively neutralize threats, it is hardly a long-term remedy. This equipment is expensive, and it is designed for a battlefield environment. 

Deploying military equipment may prove to be a necessary short-term fix, but potentially dangerous complications can be expected when this is deployed in densely populated civilian areas like a major airport or football stadium. 

For example, signal-jammers designed to disrupt drone control signals may interfere with radio and cellphone communications—and thus the Federal Communications Commission heavily regulates their use—while weapons designed to shoot down drones create falling debris and risk setting off explosives that hostile drones may be carrying.

While there is demand for counter-unmanned aircraft systems technology, there is also an opportunity to begin to develop homogenous standards for their development and use, and to promote private investment in research and development of these systems. 

With drone flights escalating in number, chief responsibility will fall on state and local law enforcement officers to mitigate unlawful conduct. History clearly demonstrates that in nearly every criminal or terrorist event, local police are the first to arrive on scene to deal with an active threat or its immediate aftermath. 

Under current law, however, these agencies have little authority to do their job. In fact, recent guidance from the FAA to law enforcement agencies specifically states that police are able merely to observe unsafe or unlawful drone conduct, and report it back to the FAA.

The odds of a timely response from federal regulators, much less one fast enough to deal with an immediate threat, are slim.

Heritage Foundation experts have recognized this shortcoming and proposed establishing a pilot program for various state and local law enforcement agencies to deputize officers to engage in counter-unmanned aircraft systems activities under federal supervision. This program would extend counter-unmanned aircraft systems competencies outside of the federal government while still allowing for federal supervision and the development of best practices for safe and reasonable counter-drone operations. 

Ultimately, the situations at Gatwick and Heathrow highlight the pressing need to ensure that law enforcement agencies at all levels of government have the tools, training, and legal authority to engage in effective counter-drone defense. While both the U.S. and the U.K. have made significant strides to mend this issue, there is more work to be done on both sides of the Atlantic.

This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal