Improving Drone Security Around Airports And Other High-Risk Environments: Where To Start?

Posted on July 10, 2019

“We know that it is critical to stay on top of evolving aviation risks so that we can keep our customers informed and properly protected,” says Chris Proudlove, [senior vice president, underwriting executive, product development and UAS] at Global Aerospace. “Interactions between drones and conventional aircraft, and the potential for collisions, damage, and injuries, are issues that are critical to evolving airspace management. In this article, guest author Tim Tyre discusses how the aviation community can combat this threat.”

As the global drone fleet continues to grow, so do the chances of an unwanted drone incursion. Many general aviation (GA) airports are facing this challenge, frequently expressed this way: How can we reduce the risk of illegal drone operations while preserving the airspace for commercial operations under Part 107 and other authorized drone flights?

Some frequent questions include:

  • We want to get ahead of the drone threat, but how do we start?
  • Is there a technology solution?
  • What are we legally allowed to do?

A good first step is to gather a representative group of your various airport stakeholders including those from the FBO, flight school, charter operators, corporate flight departments, local commercial drone operators, and owners and operators of manned aircraft based on the field.

If your airport has an Aircraft Owner’s and Pilots Association (AOPA) Airport Support Network (ASN) Representative, they might be able to assist you in establishing this interest group.

Assessment

Discuss any known threats and current systems of addressing them. Identify potential future threats and limitations. Be realistic about financial and human resource capacity. This project will require resources in staff time, investment, and training.

If your interest group is large, a smaller working group can be useful in helping to drive progress and solidify alignment with your stakeholders.

Outcomes

What do you want to achieve as a result of your plan?
Pilots, whether based on the field or transient, place a high value on knowing the location and altitude of any drones operating in the airspace so that they can make informed command decisions as they approach your airfield.

Aircraft slowing for approach and configured for landing with gear and flaps extended should avoid abrupt evasive maneuvers as their margin above stall speed is reduced. Early warning of drones operating inside the airspace and near flight paths is, therefore, valuable information.

An important part of a sound drone security strategy is a communication plan that links the local 911 dispatch or other calls from the public to the airport’s control tower or operations center. In this way, aircraft can be alerted quickly to drone activities while local law enforcement is notified.

Technology

The growing and varied field of drone detection technologies includes radio frequency (RF) and radar-based tracking systems, kinetic capture devices, jammers, and more. Budget, mission, and legal criteria are all factors in the decision-making process.

Resources

  • Contact your local FSDO/FAA for information.
  • State DOT and state Airport Manager’s Associations may have safety information and best practice guidelines.
  • Local law enforcement can provide the latest information on many potential legal issues.

Collaboration

An effective airport-based drone safety plan will require that multiple agencies understand and agree on their roles and responsibilities in the event of an incursion.

Simulations such as tabletop drills are a useful exercise for the various stakeholders, and typically include air traffic control, local law enforcement, FBI, airport operations, 911 dispatch, and others. These training exercises are invaluable in helping the team respond appropriately to drone incursions. Practice and open communications will help your team be better prepared, not only for drone incursions, but for other possible emergencies as well.

Airport Awareness and Local Outreach

Local community outreach can help increase awareness in the vicinity of airports and help warn people about the dangers of operating drones. This could include a direct mailing to residents, posters, or a number to call to report drone sightings near the airport.

Pilots should be encouraged to report drone sightings to airport authorities who, in turn, can alert local law enforcement.

Legal Issues

“What can we legally do and where do I go with questions?”
This frequently asked question is difficult to answer with a one-size-fits-all statement. The rapid growth in the use of drones in both the recreational environment and in commercial operations under Part 107 has, in some ways, outpaced the statutes and ordinances intended to govern drone operations.

Consider these three phases of drone detection and security:
Phase I: Passive monitoring
In general terms, there is no restriction on the use of monitoring equipment that passively detects the presence of drones and their location.

Your local Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) may be able to provide details on the regulations regarding permanent or temporary installations at general aviation facilities.

Phase II: Identifying an intruding drone
Many technology solutions are now able to identify the individual ID of a detected drone including characteristics such as drone type, manufacturer, ID number, direction, speed, and altitude. Some sophisticated systems can also detect and record a drone’s remaining battery life, point of origin, a “breadcrumb” digital trail to the operator, estimated payload, and ultimate destination.

The FAA has urged caution in the implementation of some of these systems at GA airports and integration of this technology requires careful planning to ensure the solutions deployed are safely and legally integrated into the airport environment. For example, depending on the type of technology used, the U.S. Department of Justice has opined that interference with the radio frequency signal between the drone and the operator, or interception of the video signal between the drone and the operator, may constitute violation of several existing federal statutes, including the Wiretap Act (18 USC §2511), Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 (ECPA) (18 U.S.C. §§ 2510-2523), Computer Fraud & Abuse Act (18 USC §1030), or the Aircraft Sabotage Act (18 USC §32). Contact your state Attorney General’s Office or the United States Attorney’s Office for guidance on the law that may apply to this phase of detection.

Phase III: Mitigation
Federal personnel with the appropriate authority, equipment, and training can assist in determining the likelihood that a particular drone is a threat to the facility being monitored and protected. Under tightly regulated circumstances, a full-time employee of a specified federal agency, currently including the Department of Justice, Department of Homeland Security, and Department of Defense, may have the authority to mitigate the drone threat. This may result in forcing a drone to land, to return to its point of origin, or to fly to a safe location. Congress is exploring the extension of this authority to state and local authorities in narrowly defined circumstances, but no timetable is known for the expansion of mitigation authority.

Legal issues and Specific State/Local Ordinances

These evolving legal issues are complex and vary depending on federal, state and local law and FAA criteria. It is recommended that your United States Attorney’s Office, state Attorney General’s Office, or county legal authority (district attorney) be contacted to help clarify the specifics for your intended use.

Conclusion

Both recreational and commercial drone fleets are growing rapidly. It is important, then, to have thoughtful and integrated drone protection plans so that our skies can be safe from dangerous and illegal drone use while remaining open and accessible for the growing array of positive applications.

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