“C-UAS statutory authorities need to change to better protect airports” – GAO

In recent years, the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has reported a significant number of drone sightings at or near airports. And, since 2021, the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has reported over 2,000 drone sightings near airports across the country, including incidents at major airports nearly every day. From 2021 through 2022, TSA reported that 63 drone incidents caused pilots to take evasive action, including four that involved commercial aircraft. While more recent figures are not yet available on a national basis, recent examples from TSA show that flight operations were halted at Reagan Washington National Airport in July 2022 due to a drone sighting, while in June 2023, an unauthorised drone caused a 30-minute ground stop at Pittsburgh International Airport.

Outside the US, high-profile and costly drone incursions include the December 2018 incident at London Gatwick Airport, Frankfurt Airport’s operational pause in early 2020 due to the presence of unauthorised drones, and more recent airspace incursions above Dublin Airport in 2023.

Whether errant or malicious, unauthorised drone flights around airports present safety and security threats and can result in flight delays. Consequently, they are prohibited. In the US, local law enforcement authorities are expected to be the first to respond to a drone sighting in controlled airspace or which interferes with manned aviation, and the federal government can assist in responding to an incident at an airport.

It is worth noting that all airports currently overseen by TSA have tactical response plans. These plans state that should a drone flight cause a persistent disruption at the airport, TSA, in coordination with the federal, tribal, state, local, and territorial entities at an airport, will evaluate whether the initial response is sufficient. 

The FAA is currently researching the use of C-UAS technologies at airports and will use the results to provide information on the performance of a range of equipment, including any impacts to navigational aids. The research project will also define best practices for airports to follow when considering future installations of such technologies.

The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) was tasked with reviewing current drone detection and mitigation issues at airports. To do so, the government watchdog reviewed relevant federal statutes, regulations, agency documents, and reports. It also interviewed federal agencies and aviation, law enforcement, and other entities to obtain a range of perspectives. 

GAO concluded its findings last year and made the results of its investigations public yesterday. The report examines federal and local roles for responding to a drone incident at an airport, federal legal authorities related to using drone detection and counter-unmanned aerial systems (C-UAS) technology at airports, and the FAA’s actions to plan for using the technology at airports and its effects on drone integration efforts.

The Departments of Homeland Security (DHS), Justice (DOJ), Defense, and Energy have express statutory authority to use C-UAS technologies if certain statutory criteria are met. They also have federal statutory exemptions from specified federal criminal laws that are potentially applicable to the use of such technologies. These technologies can be used at an airport by DHS and DOJ if the drone poses, for example, a credible threat to safety or security and the DHS Secretary or the Attorney General designates the airport for an emergency response. 

Following its investigations, GAO concluded that modifications to statutory authorities for drone detection and C-UAS operations could better protect airports against an active drone threat.

As mentioned above, the FAA tests drone detection and C-UAS technologies and is required to develop a plan for their use at airports. GAO found that the FAA is also pursuing several efforts to allow increased and routine drone operations. In various documents made available to GAO, the FAA acknowledges the effects that C-UAS technologies may have on other integration efforts. However, GAO is concerned that the FAA does not address how it will assess those effects and calls for this to be rectified in the agency’s forthcoming drone integration strategy. The FAA initially anticipated publishing the overarching strategy by February 2022 but GAO says the agency now expects to complete it by June 30, 2024. 

As part of its review, GAO interviewed representatives from airports, all of which noted different approaches to C-UAS technology, with some voicing concerns about their authority to use the technology. Some airports have installed the technology but one representative told GAO that it was concerned about using the technology, stating that they believe their legal authority to detect and mitigate unauthorised drone use was unclear. Representatives from another airport told the watchdog that they intended to install drone detection technology, and after taking some steps to do so, ultimately decided not to proceed. 

The decision to grant new or expanded authorities is a policy decision for Congress that could include considering oversight roles, training needs, and privacy issues. GAO notes in its report that the current administration released a legislative proposal regarding DHS’s and DOJ’s use of C-UAS technology that would provide tribal, state, local, and territorial entities as well as airport owners or operators the authority to use certain drone detection technologies subject to specified conditions and safeguards. The US government released its domestic C-UAS national action plan in April 2022 and the first recommendation was to enact a new legislative proposal to expand the set of tools and actors who can protect against UAS by reauthorising and expanding existing C‑UAS authorities for DHS, DOJ and other federal agencies. This nationwide, all-agency plan also highlights the need to expand drone detection authorities for state, local, territorial and tribal law enforcement agencies and critical infrastructure owners and operators.

Indeed, GAO found that some legislation addressing certain identified challenges has been introduced in both the previous and the current sessions of Congress, but as of March 2024, such legislation had not yet been enacted. To address this, GAO recommends that Congress amend the pertinent statutory authorities related to drone detection and C-UAS operations at airports. 

During the course of the review, GAO also spoke with representatives from the drone industry, and stated that companies using or planning to use drones as part of their commercial distribution networks said it will be important for the FAA and others to be able to identify drones authorised to operate at airports. The stakeholders said such identification would help ensure that authorised drone operations are not impeded by detection or mitigation technology.

Image: Shutterstock

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