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Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) has undoubtedly matured from the days of Remote-Controlled model airplanes to the current day. The positive application of UAS potential is endless, and their numbers are multiplying – they are everywhere. The threat and risk of a UAS incident in the airways have intensified.
Adding to the problem, terrorist groups and bad actors have adapted current UAS capability as an inexpensive and easy platform to launch attacks and intentional disruptions to air traffic. Recent attacks on oil processing facilities, assassination attempts, and disruptions of aviation operations (Gatwick airport shut down last year) underscore that this is only the start. Millions of dollars, disruptions to travel and business, and potential loss of life are on the line.
The challenges are considerable for detecting, mitigating or countering any UAS, not just those used as attack or disruption platforms. Technology is not yet effective or reliable. Adding to the challenge is our federal, state, and local laws are not designed to specifically address nefarious UAS or their operators if you can find them. Our laws are designed to promote aviation.
"Although detection and Counter UAS technology is developing rapidly, there is still a lot of work to do. We must continue planning, coordinating, and preparing to respond with the resources available today"
Concerning airports, Counter UAS planning is well underway at the federal and local levels to address the threat. A network of critical partners at the Headquarters and field levels is now established. DHS/TSA, DOJ/FBI, DOT/FAA, Airports, and LE Agencies are coordinating policy to provide the field with initial guidance to develop detailed response plans. At the airport level, UAS Command Cells are being established with FAA Control Tower Chiefs, Airport Security Directors, TSA Federal Security Directors, local LE, FBI Special Agents in Charge, and the U.S. and State Attorney’s Offices. Each UAS event will be unique, and plans need to focus on detailing potential methods for improved detection and reporting. Communications methods and contacts are being established, and situational triggers for escalating action are being identified.
The first UAS reports will likely be from Pilots or the FAA Tower. Those reports will have limited information since it is unlikely the pilots or controllers will be able to track speed and direction of travel or provide other important information such as size, color, altitude, or payloads. The need is to increase resources for detection and reporting by using airport and airline employees, delivery contractors, and local company employees as reporting cells or deployable surveillance teams. They will need a dedicated UAS Reporting Center phone number to assist in reporting. A UAS Reporting Center must answer 24/7/365 and report to the local UAS Command Cell.
Initially, it is not expected that the general public will understand a UAS threat. However, a concerned citizen might report a UAS to a 911 Call Center. Therefore, 911 Call Centers need to report UAS calls to the UAS Center. If a UAS event becomes persistent, then TV, radio, prints, and social media should be engaged to ask the public for help in reporting UAS sightings to the UAS Reporting Center.
Based on the persistence of the UAS, or levels of disruption or damage, the local UAS Command Cell will analyze options and direct response actions. It is fully expected there will be a need to inform and update Headquarters, political leaders, and the public. Therefore, public affairs directors and media liaisons need to know UAS plans and response options in advance of an event.
Once Detection Systems become available, it should be integrated into the FAA Air Traffic Control Tower. The FAA controllers require the rapid Situational Awareness to make immediate air traffic decisions. The FAA will make the appropriate notifications to air traffic and determine the need for air traffic evasive or operational restrictions. Although some UAS operations might only last 30 minutes or so, the threat can last for days.
In the Response phase, a high priority must be to improve detection and report to warn aircraft and find the operator. The Command Cell might deploy surveillance teams and ask for assistance from local LE agencies, employees, and the public to look for and report UAS operations. It will be important to contact local UAS flying clubs, marketing companies, real estate companies, nearby airports, LE and Fire Department agencies, and other known UAS operators. Perhaps reported UAS is a known or pre-coordinated UAS activity. Identifying UAS and Remote-Controlled model aircraft clubs, and businesses that operate UAS must be researched in advance with contact information included in plans.
Should an operator be identified, there will still be legal challenges: Applicable federal laws include the Preventing Emerging Threats Act of 2018, Fourth Amendment Law, Aircraft Sabotage Act, Aircraft Piracy Act, and the National Strategy for Aviation Security. However, planning teams are exploring other options with the U.S. or State Attorneys to prosecute offending UAS operators. The considerations include holding the operators under State and local laws; charging the operators with unsafe operations of aircraft (a Federal charge); taking the title “UAS” out of legal charge language; and use alternate charges such as Disorderly Conduct, Criminal Trespassing, and Danger to the Public. Each UAS situation can be catastrophic. Therefore, airport UAS planning and command cells need to be meeting with FBI, FAA, and the U.S. and State Attorneys to discuss options.
If the UAS remains a persistent threat to air traffic operations, then the UAS Command Cell can request the TSA Federal Security Director to coordinate for Counter UAS resources and authority. The authority to use Counter UAS technology rests with DHS and DOJ.
Once a UAS threat is mitigated or eliminated, the FAA, in consultation with the Airport Director, will determine the safety of reopening airspace and deleting restrictions. The UAS Command Cell should conduct a Hot Wash and prepare for the next UAS situation. Public Affairs agencies should coordinate with local and social media to summarize the incident and thank the public for their assistance.
Although detection and Counter UAS technology is developing rapidly, there is still a lot of work to do. We must continue planning, coordinating, and preparing to respond with the resources available today. The UAS challenge will be a journey, not a destination. This is a long-haul effort.