DHS seeks info on counter-drone tech

Drone deterrence: Easy to buy, tricky to use legally

Although there are federal restrictions on where drones can fly, unmanned aerial systems still make their way, intentionally or not, into prohibited airspace.  While some of these incursions merely cause headaches for officials on the ground, others can be life threatening.

Federal, state and local agencies can protect staff and facilities from unwanted UAS incursions with drone-deterrence technology, but buying such equipment comes with a slew of regulatory and legal considerations, federal and private aviation law experts said.

DroneShield, which provided anti-drone technology to the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, is now offering products through the General Services Administration's Schedule 84, its multiple-award contract for security, fire and law enforcement. The systems can be acquired online through GSA's Advantage program.

DroneShield targets trespassing drones with a  radio jammer mounted on a rifle-like stock that allows "controlled management" of unmanned aerial vehicles up to a kilometer away, forcing them to land via a controlled vertical descent. The company also has a DroneSentry system that harnesses radar, radio frequency detectors and cameras to locate unauthorized drones.

Unauthorized drones have become a bane for some federal agencies, state law enforcement and emergency responders as they buzz sensitive sites, deliver contraband to prisons or block critical emergency response work during and after natural disasters.

Errant drones, for instance, have lately harassed federal and local response aircraft fighting rampant, deadly wildfires in the western U.S. The Federal Aviation Administration on Aug. 15 issued a stark warning about private drones flying near fire zones. Thoughtlessly piloted private drone flights, it said, have resulted in the grounding of critical firefighting aircraft.

"If you fly your drone anywhere near a wildfire, you could get someone killed," said the warning.

FAA and aviation law experts advised federal, state and local agencies that due diligence is needed before deploying anti-drone systems.

The FAA, which has been testing drone detection systems with airports around the country since 2016, cautioned that federal laws can preclude the use of some systems.

"While offering this product line itself does not violate any FAA regulations, there are a number of federal legal obstacles to testing, evaluating, or using countermeasures against [unmanned aerial systems] in the United States," said FAA spokesman Les Dorr in an email.

Agencies could wind up violating federal statues regarding wiretapping, sabotage and computer fraud laws if the countermeasures are deployed without a clear understanding of the rules and regulations that apply.

"It is incumbent upon the purchasing department/agency to determine their legal authority to acquire, test, and use these technologies," advised Dorr.

The technology's radio frequency jamming as well as federal aviation anti-hijacking laws can be at odds with drone detection and some mitigation technology, aviation attorney Jonathan Rupprecht said an interview.

The Federal Communications Commission and the Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration regulations bar jamming of radio frequencies, while federal aviation laws prohibit unauthorized takeover of aircraft, he said.

Those regulations were created decades ago and haven't kept up with rapidly evolving drone technologies and applications.  Anti-jamming laws date to the 1934 Communications Act. Only the Defense and Energy Departments, said Dorr, currently have legislative relief or are exempt from those laws and regulations.  

"No state, local, or private sector entities have been granted legislative relief," Dorr said, but said several bills now in front of Congress could grant exceptions to the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security for specific missions, assets and activities.

The DroneShield countermeasures look to be the first such products offered through GSA's schedules. DroneShield CEO Oleg Vornik said that he didn't know of any other drone detection and mitigation providers on the schedule. GSA couldn't make that exact determination, however, according to a statement from a spokesperson.

This article was first posted to FCW, a sibling site to GCN.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, tele.com magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at mrockwell@fcw.com or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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