Drone Experts Present Technological Threats, Solutions to Senators

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A panel of witnesses explained to senators the challenges and potential solutions for securely using and regulating unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) or drones at a June 18 Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee Security Subcommittee hearing.

Subcommittee Chair Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, said that he looks to find solutions that maximize UAS benefits in a way that does not undermine American interests, “whether national security interests, privacy interests, or economic security interests of our citizens.”

As Sullivan, Ranking Member Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and other senators noted incidents involving unauthorized drones causing mass flight delays at different airports and the question of whether Chinese drone use poses a national security threat, UAS expert witnesses highlighted technological challenges of safely tracking and securing drones, as well as potential solutions.

Director of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Alaska Center for UAS Integration (ACUASI) Cathy Cahill said that counter-UAS (C-UAS) detect and avoid (DAA) technologies are two key ways to regulate drones and ensure their safe deployment. C-UAS identifies potentially dangerous or unauthorized UAS and removes them from airspace, while DAA informs a UAS or its operator of nearby aircrafts so it can move and avoid them.

Despite the benefits these technologies bring, however, Cahill said that C-UAS, which the Departments of Defense (DoD), Energy, Homeland Security, Justice, and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) have exclusive use over, makes it difficult to test and develop C-UAS.

“Even though we are a leader in testing detect and avoid technologies, we are not currently testing counter-UAS. It is illegal for us to do so, under Title 18, Title 49 of the US Code of Federal Regulations,” Cahill said, adding that despite ubiquitous commercial work on DAA, C-UAS is key to sharpening DAA.

Despite challenges in developing and acquiring concrete and secure C-UAS and DAA, Deputy Associate Administrator of FAA’s Office of Security and Hazardous Material Angela Stubblefield said that FAA has been working on Remote Identification rules, which would help allow UAS users to avoid other UAS and security officials to distinguish between authorized and unauthorized UAS.

President and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International Brian Wynne also supported Remote ID, speaking further to the benefits it would bring.

“[Remote ID] will provide law enforcement with the means to identify and subsequently mitigate the careless, clueless, or potentially criminal operators,” Wynne said. “Remote ID is also vital to the realization of a UAS traffic management system, which would work alongside the existing air traffic control system to reduce barriers to innovation and improve the security of the national airspace.”

The witnesses and senators also spoke about cybersecurity concerns and data protection, particularly because Chinese drones are popular in the United States. Harry Wingo, a faculty member of the National Defense University College of Information and Cyberspace, spoke about the dangers of Chinese drone producers like DGI and what data they collect could mean for national security.

“American geospatial information is flown to Chinese data centers at an unprecedented level,” Wingo said. “This literally gives a Chinese company a view from above of our nation. DGI says American data is safe, but its use of proprietary software and networks means, how would we know?”

Stubblefield said FAA is working with Federal and national security partners to identify and address cyber and data security threats of UAS, and provided further advice for UAS operators to consider maximizing their protection.

“We strongly recommend that UAS operators closely review their user licensing agreements and the data access policies for their drones to ensure that adequate protections are in place,” she said.
“Likewise, the FAA is reviewing our agreements with UAS service suppliers to assure data transparency, sovereignty, and protection requirements are included.”

Witnesses said that reinforcing investments in secure American-made UAS will help quell uncertainties over foreign-made drones, and they further added that greater collaboration between Federal, state, and local levels of UAS regulation enforcement will help smooth UAS security oversight.

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