Thursday, May 20, 2021

Drones Flying Near Airports, Infrastructure Prompt U.S. Action: Regulators, law enforcement and intelligence agencies try to figure out who is flying for fun and who might have malicious intent






The Wall Street Journal
By Brett Forrest and Brian McGill
Updated May 20, 2021 4:16 pm ET


Federal agencies are scrambling to address a surge in the use of consumer drones as the unmanned aircraft crowd the airspace above critical sites, posing a threat to public safety and national security.

The Federal Aviation Administration and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration are developing a joint national air-traffic-control system for low-flying drones. The Department of Homeland Security is testing technologies to detect small drones favored by consumers, and the Pentagon is researching methods to knock them out of the sky.

Reports of drone sightings around airports are pouring into the FAA at a rate of more than 100 a month. Commercial pilots flying into and out of Los Angeles International Airport have reported increased sightings of drones near their flight path, with 23 sightings reported to the control tower so far this year, according to an airport official.

Drone incursions into the Los Angeles airport’s restricted airspace nearly tripled from 2019 to 2020, with a high of roughly 1,200 flights last June, according to WhiteFox Defense Technologies Inc., a California developer of drone-tracking technology.

With prices having dropped on small consumer models, drones are everywhere, used for fun and for business like land-surveying. Restricting their use creates a conundrum for regulatory, law-enforcement and intelligence agencies as they race to identify what is in the sky and to separate hobbyists from users with malicious intent.

Some amateur fliers have taken to challenging their piloting skills amid industrial sites and alongside borders where smuggling of people and drugs is common.

“There’s been a realization that these things can be everywhere,” said Maj. Gen. Sean A. Gainey, the head of the Pentagon office for countering small unmanned aircraft. “And we’re seeing them everywhere. The market is essentially flooded with this capability.”

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission recorded at least 57 sightings of drone flights above two dozen domestic nuclear sites from 2014 to 2019, a commission spokesman said. In September 2019, he said, a swarm of drones overflew the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station outside of Phoenix, an event a commission official described as a “drone-a-palooza” in an internal communication.

Smaller, slow-moving drones are difficult to track, said Gen. Gainey and other officials. Identifying who is controlling a drone from the ground is an added problem, since some can be piloted from roughly 4 miles away. Traditional radar systems have difficulty picking up small, slow-moving objects, requiring the development of new means to track them

Sales of consumer drones in the U.S. reached more than $1 billion last year, according to Statista, a German consumer-data company.

More than 800,000 drones are registered in the U.S. and more than 225,000 remote pilots are FAA-certificated, according to the agency. Researchers at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, in Daytona Beach, Fla., identified a nearly 40% increase in the number of domestic drone flights from 2019 to 2020.

Risks are already evident overseas. In late 2019, drones operating near London Gatwick Airport forced the 36-hour suspension of commercial flights at a loss of more than $60 million. Similar events have beleaguered airports in Dubai, Dublin and Frankfurt.

Last month, attackers used commercially available drones to drop explosives on a U.S. military installation at Erbil International Airport in Iraqi Kurdistan. The same was done to police in Mexico’s Michoacán state.

“There is the potential for a threat because the capability has been demonstrated overseas,” said Ryan Wallace, an assistant professor of aeronautical science at Embry-Riddle.

After a drone flown by a recreational user who had lost sight of it crashed on the White House grounds in 2015, the federal government began looking to toughen what had been a light-handed regulatory approach.

The air-traffic control system the FAA and NASA are currently developing is designed to track drones that weigh less than 55 pounds—typical of smaller, consumer drones—and fly below 400 feet. The intent is to promote legitimate activities, making them safe and predictable, while weeding out those with ill-intent, FAA and NASA officials said.

As part of that effort, the FAA last month liberalized rules banning night-flying and flights over people and moving vehicles provided that pilots met several criteria, including passing a test and putting approved lighting on their drones.

Some users will now be allowed to fly drones beyond the line of sight, until now a prohibited practice. That change also smooths the path for fledgling drone-delivery services by Amazon.com Inc. and United Parcel Service Inc., which use smaller drones.

Rule changes also require pilots of small, low-flying drones to broadcast by radio frequency their identity, location and altitude, as well as the location of their control stations or take-off points. The FAA will phase in the regulation, allotting time for manufacturers to include such capabilities in upcoming models.

“Remote identification will help law enforcement determine if a drone poses an actual threat that needs to be mitigated,” an FAA spokeswoman said in a statement.

Last month in North Dakota, the Department of Homeland Security tested several dozen private-sector technologies designed to detect drone flights. The department plans to use a variety of such sensors customized to various topographical settings, with radar working best in open areas, for example, and acoustical detection suited to urban environments.

Federal officials are concerned that drones are being used along the Canadian and Mexican borders for nefarious purposes and to collect images and other data about critical infrastructure throughout the country.

“People are doing surveillance,” said Tim Bennett, the manager of the DHS air domain awareness program. “It’s how far out, how low, and how fast we can detect them.”

WhiteFox, the company that tracked the drones around LAX, was included in last month’s DHS trials. The company plans to offer its technology, which tracks a drone’s radio-frequency emission, to clients beyond the federal government and heavy industry. Few police forces and private companies, for example, possess the capability to identify drone flights.

“The asymmetric threat of drones—easy to buy, easy to fly, traditionally expensive to stop—makes U.S. critical infrastructure, such as airports, a huge risk,” said Luke Fox, chief executive of WhiteFox.

Beyond detection, the Pentagon is looking into intercepting and bringing down drones. Last year, it assigned Gen. Gainey to invigorate an office charged with creating defenses against drone strikes and surveillance on the battlefield and at military sites in the U.S.

His office worked with Boeing Co. and other companies last month, testing drone interceptors at the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona. The interceptors fire various types of netting to arrest the rotation of a drone’s propellers and limit collateral damage once the drone falls from the sky.

The office plans to conduct tests every six months and is experimenting with directed-energy and high-powered microwave systems to disable drones.

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