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10 steps to developing a Counter-UAS program

Consumer drones are becoming more popular and while many are used for recreational purposes, drones can present extreme challenges related to privacy and crime

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An August 2020 federal memo outlines the legal issues state and local police need to consider when developing a Counter-UAS program.

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By Gary Watson

An Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) is defined as an unmanned aircraft, commonly called a drone, and the equipment to control it remotely. Consumer drones are becoming more popular and while many are used for recreational purposes, drones can present extreme challenges related to privacy and crime.

In 2019, a drone was found outside the Buckingham Correctional Center, where it was carrying a cellphone, SIM cards and narcotics presumably with the intent of delivering contraband inside the walls surrounding the facility. Online videos show shotguns and pistols attached to modified drones and equipped with cameras and radios for easy remote control, potentially a huge threat to mass gatherings, metro areas and critical infrastructure.

During a recent webinar hosted by Counter-UAS company Fortem Technologies, Technical Surveillance Agent for the Virginia State Police Department DJ Smith referenced multiple incidents where drones presented a threat to public gatherings.

At the Lee monument protests, drones were flying in the air, buzzing over civilians’ heads and posing a security risk to the community. Equipped with cameras, these drones had an aerial view of where police troops were stationed and where medical supplies were held, putting police at a disadvantage in terms of safety and security.

“When you have these large events of over 200 attendees, it’s a soft target opportunity for someone to do something with a drone that can hurt innocent bystanders,” said Smith. “The drone problem is not as widespread yet, but we see the potential of it, so having a good action plan in place is extremely important.”

What options do police departments have in addressing drone threats?

Under federal law, a drone – even those that cost as little as $10 – is defined as an aircraft. It is illegal for local and state police to damage, destroy, disrupt, or delay an aircraft in flight and there are steep penalties for breaking this law. Law enforcement may act on drone threats if they can articulate a clear and present danger to human life; however, due to unclear guidelines and inadequate tools, many are hesitant to act. Hacking the drone’s communication system would give law enforcement the advantage of understanding the drone user’s intent, but wiretapping and hacking these UAS is also usually illegal.

It is possible to create a state, local, tribal, and territorial (SLTT) Counter-UAS program that is both legal and effective. A federal memo issued in August 2020 from the DoJ, DoT, FCC and DHS outlines the various legal issues state and local police need to consider when developing a Counter-UAS program. The memo underscores the importance of adhering to federal guidelines but opens the door to immediate steps that can be taken to build a legal, effective program.

Here are 10 steps law enforcement should take when developing a Counter-UAS program:

1. Assess your vulnerabilities

What gathering locations are in your area? Do you have high-value targets like airports, nuclear plants, or political sites? Analyze the critical infrastructure in your area and consider if you have any high-tech industry or espionage targets. Has your department received drone complaints from citizens or businesses, and have drones been discovered in odd places like rooftops of key buildings? Capture and study this information to identify trends. Then, identify if your main concern is from clueless/careless drone pilots, criminals dropping contraband, terrorists, or all of the above. Gathering this information is crucial for creating a plan.

2. Quantify your drone problem

Vulnerable locations may not know they have a drone problem until it’s too late. There are plenty of tools available to detect objects in the airspace, but new radar technologies have been developed explicitly for detecting drones in all types of environments. With negligible radio emission and much smaller form factors, radar is considered the gold standard for detection. There is no legal risk to radar and a simple FCC license is all that’s needed to operate it. Radio frequency (RF) detection of remote-control signals is also possible however, most criminally operated drones have been designed not to emit an RF signal, thus go undetected by these systems.

3. Create a written department response plan

You’ll need guidance and a written policy in place for dealing with rogue drones. How will the responding officer deal with the drone once they get on scene? This response plan should include guidance for capturing and preserving evidence on the drone. Consider creating a statewide reporting system to track cases involving drones using an intelligence fusion center or equivalent.

4. Establish a deterrence plan

Many drone pilots can be deterred by posting “No Drone Zone” signs, or by conducting a public education campaign to spread the word. You’ll have to determine what the laws in your area allow as far as restricting flights and prosecuting operators. Make sure these laws are understood throughout your department, all the way through to patrol officers, and aim to get local prosecutors on board with your efforts. If you’re having a big gathering or event, have the FAA’s number handy.

5. Create an outreach plan

Contact other stakeholders like local hobbyists or drone flight groups to get the word out about the restrictions. Contact your local stadiums and industrial facilities to see if they are using Counter-UAS technology or having drone issues.

6. Define legal standards for determining what constitutes an imminent threat to life

Create a coordinated plan of action and work with local attorneys to define legal standards for determining what constitutes an imminent threat to life. Drones are small and move fast, so it may be difficult to see if they have a lethal payload until it’s too late. Creating techniques to articulate and document the justification for using force against drones will be important, as it might need to be explained to the FAA and federal agencies and there may be civil litigation by the owner of the drone.

7. Locate the operator

Explore every possible way to locate the operator. You may not be authorized to disrupt the drone, but if SLTT laws are broken, the operator can be arrested. It’s best to arrest the pilot after the drone is grounded to avoid becoming the “Remote Pilot In Command,” and thus responsible for its future actions.

8. Learn how to formally request federal financial assistance

Gather scientific data and reach out to the local FBI Special Event Assessment Rating (SEAR) agent to coordinate requests. The feds have limited resources and require an official request from the state governor. This process could take months and should be factored into the timeline.

9. Go after budget and grant money

Go after homeland security grant money from DHS, DoD and CBP. Use your collected data to justify your requests. If the department does have a drone program, it will also need to have a matching Counter-UAS program. Focus first on detection and tracking projects, then, if justified, go after mitigation.

10. Lobby the federal government for greater Counter-UAS Authority

Respect must be earned, and it will depend on the credibility of your local program. This requires demonstration and understanding of risk management as it relates to C-UAS, along with an emphasis on quality of equipment, staff, training, procedures and data. The FAA will respond to quality scientific data – you will need to prove that your holistic system is reliable, safe, and presents no risk to manned traffic or authorized drone traffic. The SLTT Executive Management will need to acknowledge and accept the risks associated with Counter-UAS technology and demonstrate an understanding of how to minimize said risks.

In November 2020, Senator Lee (R-Utah) introduced a bill to protect Americans from attack drones. Giving federal agencies the legal authority to delegate their counter-drone efforts to private companies, this bill aims to allow the FBI to contract with private sector companies to provide C-UAS technology. This is a step forward toward making it legal for local authorities to act against rogue drones. Until it’s official, the above 10 steps are a great way to solidify a plan for your department.

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About the author

Gary Watson is VP of Solutions at Fortem Technologies responsible for architecting innovative security solutions for Fortem’s customers. An experienced speaker, Gary runs the Fortem webinar series, providing thought leadership and bringing in expert viewpoints from across the industry.