Small Off-the-Shelf Drones Causing Alarm In Security Circles

By Allyson Versprille
Small, readily available unmanned aerial systems pose an increased risk to national security as the technology grows more capable, a panel of experts testified before Congress.

“Technology typically outstrips policy, and this technology has certainly stretched the capacity of the U.S. government’s bureaucracy to swiftly provide a counter drone strategy,” said retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Frederick Roggero, president and chief executive officer of Resilient Solutions Ltd., a consulting firm.

European countries have already been working on balancing the need to protect citizens from malicious use of drones while preserving recreational and commercial advantages, said Roggero. The United Kingdom in 2012 developed a counter UAS system to defend the Olympic stadium in London. This system was improved upon and used again in 2013 and 2014 to defend world leaders during the G8 Summit in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, and the NATO Summit in Wales, he said before the House Homeland Security Committee subcommittee hearing on oversight and management efficiency.

NATO already has classification guidelines for small drones based on features such as size, weight, capability, engine capacity, fuel or battery requirements, speed and payload, said Roggero.

“It’s a good idea to look toward international partners instead of reinventing the wheel every time,” he added.

Another concern is that even the smallest unmanned drones — less than 55 pounds and costing just a few hundred dollars — can cause significant damage, said Todd Humphreys, an assistant professor for the Cockrell School of Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin.

“Commercial, off-the-shelf technology when modified is perfectly capable of carrying out [terrorist attacks],” he said. “In fact, even as we speak, in Ukraine the conflict is involving off-the-shelf drone hardware modified for that conflict for surveillance and [weaponry].”

They also lack the defenses to ward off cyber assaults, said Humphreys.

In 2012 the radio navigation laboratory that he directs at the University of Texas found unmanned aerial systems are easily “spoofed,” meaning their GPS navigation systems can be commandeered by an outside source. False signals are transmitted to the vehicle’s receiver, tricking it into thinking nothing is amiss. Three years later, that threat is still very real, he said.

In March the Federal Aviation Administration announced an interim policy allowing companies that use UAS and have a Section 333 exemption to receive a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization for flights below 200 feet. In order for an operator to receive the certificate, the aircraft must weigh less than 55 pounds, operate during daytime conditions, fly within a visual line of sight and maintain certain distances from airports and heliports. A Section 333 exemption grants a small drone controller the ability to perform commercial operations with unmanned systems prior to the finalization of the small UAS rule, which the administration has not yet published.

These measures will discourage illegal operations and improve safety while also giving operators the ability to use unmanned systems for commercial purposes, according to a statement by the FAA.

An operator with ill intent would not be deterred by such policies and restrictions, the panelists testified.

Of the four speakers, two said the Department of Homeland Security needed to take the lead on countering threats posed by commercial drones. The other two recommended a dual partnership with the Defense Department. The United States should act now before the threat escalates, they agreed.

“The threshold for a successful attack is low when success is measured by the ability to cause widespread panic or economic disruption,” said Humphreys. The mere presence of a drone at a football game or accidental crash on the White House lawn can create chaos, and the do-it-yourself community that creates hardware and software modifications to drones is large and growing, he added.

He suggested geofencing, tracking systems with electro-optical sensors and squadrons of interceptor drones to contain the aircraft. However, more sophisticated users can surpass these measures by making minor changes to the system’s autopilot software, said Humphreys.

Topics: Homeland Security, DHS Policy, Science and Technology, Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles

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