Are the small drones observed over Paris a serious threat? More importantly, are small drones like those seen over Paris a serious security threat in the United States? These questions come at a time when proposed new rules by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will legalize commercial uses and open US skies to what some observers feel will be tens of thousands of daily operations. A collision between safety, security, privacy rights and commercial utility is about to happen and the public has a chance to weigh in on the issues via the open public comment period in the rule-making process.
The events in Paris, coupled with earlier, equally mysterious simultaneous drone flights over sensitive facilities, such as nuclear reactors in France, have put the events into the center ring of the 24/7 media circus. The Paris flights came on the tail of a January crash of a small unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) at the White House. The White House event raised serious security issues, but when it was discovered that the small drone was flown by a reportedly drunk government employee, the security aspects were somewhat glossed over, and some news reports seemed to focus on a “don’t drink and drone” theme.
How worried should the public be about the security threat posed by drones? The answer is that, although there may be some threat from drones, they are a relatively low-level threat when compared to more standard terrorist techniques such as car bombs and suicide vests. The development of drone technology such as that which will be fostered by the FAA’s proposed rules is an inevitable technological step forward. As with all new technologies, 20 years from now we will find that drones are being used in many ways that we have not even begun to anticipate. But, also as with all technologies, there is a dark side that can be exploited by terrorists and criminals for their advantage.
While we should not be overly concerned about the security threat of drone use by terrorists, the recent events in France and at the White House point out that there are vulnerabilities that need to be addressed. It is reported that White House security services personnel who are armed with automatic weapons and shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles had no weapon with which they could comfortably shoot at the approaching drone. They apparently correctly assessed that firing their weapons at the drone would result in local area damage that would probably exceed any damage that could be done by the drone. Their assessment proved to be correct, but hopefully efforts are now being made to equip security forces at high-value targets like the White House with weapons that might be effective against small drones. Kinetic weapons such as low-velocity shotguns should be explored along with electronic detection, and jamming of the drones’ control frequencies could be combined with low-tech methods such as use of vegetation (e.g. trees) to enhance the protection of high-value targets.
Rather than focusing on preparing for the dark side of drone use, we should begin to pay attention to the privacy and cultural issues that we may have to deal with as drone use becomes more prevalent. There have already been altercations between drone users and those who feel that they have been inappropriately surveilled (e.g. photographed) by the drone operator. Warrantless searches by drones are another societal concern that needs to be addressed. Both states and the federal government have made initial (albeit largely unsuccessful) forays into controlling the use of drones by public entities such as the police and governmental agencies. More emphasis needs to be put on developing reasonable drone legislation at the state level, which allows for use of drones, but also guards personal privacy.
We are at an interesting point in the history of drone development in the United States. The general public has a unique opportunity to have some impact on future drone development at a time when there is significant media coverage of drone issues. The FAA released in the February 23 Federal Register its long-awaited proposal for commercial use of small unmanned aerial systems (UAS). The UAS is the total system for controlling a UAV or drone, and includes the UAV itself, its control station and communications. Public comments as part of the notice of proposed rule-making (NPRM) process are sought by the announced April 24, 2015, deadline. The voluminous changes and preamble for the proposed changes to Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations and instructions on how to comment can be found here.
The private use of drones, as well as police and military use domestically, need to be controlled from a public safety standpoint, from a public security standpoint and also from a privacy standpoint. This is not easy to do and can probably not be done by any single agency or at any particular level of government. For example, the only privacy issues addressed in the new FAA proposals are those that deal with the security of personal information provided by applicants seeking the new licenses and registrations required by the proposed rules.
The necessary controls for drone use covering privacy should preferably be created, at least to some extent, by legislation rather than developed by case law in the courts. Whether federal legislation should be involved in privacy regulation is an open issue. Some commentators feel the federal government, with its tendency for one-size-fits-all regulation, is not the way to go, and that state regulation is highly preferable. Over 30 states have proposed regulations for drone use under consideration and at least 20 already have enacted some controls, some of which may be in conflict with the federal preemption aspects of the FAA’s new proposals.
However these issues resolve themselves, significant citizen input in the NPRM process for the FAA’s new proposed rules can be very helpful in shaping the initial steps of controlling small drones. Drone industry lobbyists (they do exist) are sure to comment and provide comments, not only through the NPRM process, but also by lobbying in Congress and at the state level. It would be a shame if the public were not to take advantage of an opportunity to be heard in the comment phase.