Features, Online — February 24, 2015 at 10:52 am

Expert Interviews for Drones in the U.S. National Airspace System: A Safety and Security Assessment

I. Introduction

In 2012, the U.S. Congress passed the FAA Revitalization and Reform Act which among other provisions called for the integration of drones into the U.S. national airspace. While the statutory provision was an attempt to meet the needs of an emerging industry which includes the defense sector, Congress inadvertently failed to examine many of the potential problems relating to the use of domestic drones. In spite of industry and government efforts to mitigate these problems, three areas continue to hold our national security at risk and plague UAS integration efforts: (1) inadequate safety systems, (2) inadequate statutes, and (3) incomplete threat analyses. The authors discuss each area in detail along with proposed solutions. To explore these issues, the authors interviewed experts from the military, scientific, and academic communities.

II. Interviews

  1. Mica Endsley: Chief Scientist, United States Air Force
  2. Committee Aide: U.S. House, Committee on Homeland Security
  3. Major Michael: Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Division Chief, U.S. CENTCOM (last name withheld for security purposes)
  4. Rory Paul: CEO, Volt Aerial Robotics Company
  5. Colonel (Ret.) Mitchell (last name withheld for security purposes): RPA Pilot, Evaluator, and Training Chief, USAF Special Operations Command
  6. David Wetham: Professor and Senior Lecturer at the United Kingdom Defense Academy, King’s College, London

1) Dr. Mica Endsley: Chief Scientist, United States Air Force.

Dr. Endsley is the scientific advisor to the Secretary of the Air Force and the department’s chief of research and technology. Dr. Endsley also served on the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board as panel chair on Defense against remotely piloted vehicles and chaired an S&T review of the Human Effectiveness Directorate at the Air Force Research Laboratory. (On the Record (recorded) phone interview conducted by authors at 12:47 CT, July 8, 2014.)

Question: Starting with the discovery of an operational need, what is the process by which equipment is developed to meet that need?

Answer: Normally the Air Force’s research needs are driven by the core competencies [Air Superiority, Global Precision Attack, Personnel Recovery, Special Operations, Global Integrated ISR, Command and Control, Cyber Security, Space Superiority, Agile Combat Support, Building Partnerships, Nuclear Deterrence Operations, and Rapid Global Mobility] in the master plan – these are handed down by the Major Commands [the Purpose of a Major Command is to organize, train and equip forces for the Combatant Commands (COCOMS)]. Outside of this, the COCOMS hand down their needs. Needs also arise of war gaming, searching horizons, the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), and a host of other sources. However, the short term needs come from the Combatant Commands.

*Authors note: Dr. Endsley declined to answer the remainder of the question citing the classification level of the requested information.

Question: Considering the range of impacts that RPAs can have on security, what is the Air Force doing to examine this issue?

Answer: Many of the programs I can’t go into, however, I can tell you we are looking at it. We have a group at the Air Force Academy working on this right now. [voice in background – prompted Endsley] We also have the Joint Planning and Development Office (JPDO) working with the FAA, NASA, Air Force, et al. Drones have scary implications, but the FAA has developed a plan. They are currently working on “sense and avoid” a new technology that will alert aircraft to the presence of drones. In addition, there are six test sites around the U.S. that are there to help with appropriate R&D. As you know, commercial entities want to push everything from crop dusters to flying packages from Amazon.com.

 Question: Concerning RPAs, what are some of the major challenges going forward and how can we defend against drone related threats?

Answer: The Scientific Advisory Board began looking at this between 2005 and 2006. The threats were approached in phases: bases, then civil targets, et al. It did cover defense against UAS. They are a very real and credible threat. Umm, the amount of damage they can do is pretty much restricted to the amount of payload they can carry. So for the smaller ones that are harder to find, they can’t carry very much. The large ones are easier to detect and can do more damage are easier to shoot down basically. [Author: What about the aspect that terrorism incites such a psychological dimension. For instance every one could feel that they are equally at risk? Thus, panic could do more damage than the actual payload?] That is certainly a possibility, but it has to be put into context.

Question: Point of sale restrictions have been used with a degree of success with firearms, for instance, you can make any component on a weapon without a license except the upper, could this be done with a similar component common to all drones?

Answer: I don’t think you can do that at the aircraft component level because there are so many legitimate commercial and private uses for them, but you can do that at the weapons level. Because it’s really only when you start weaponizing them that it becomes a concern. [So there is no common component that can be limited as far as OTS?] They are homebuilt, you can crank them out on a 3D printer if you want to, you can crank them out in your garage. And the actual vehicle, there’s not any reason to restrict the building of the actual vehicle; it’s only if you weaponize them it that it’s a challenge from a security standpoint.

Question: How do you assess the FAA’s overall responsiveness to this emerging issue – are they incorporating future threats into their rationale?

Answer: Very prudent, very conservative, so as not to endanger the public, very cautious. However, the technology and safety and the security issues are being worked in a separate environment.


2) U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security; Homeland Security Committee Aide Quotes

The aide is an advisor for the Chairman and Co-Chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security. Office policy did not allow the interviewee to be identified by name. The quotes listed were approved for release. (Phone interview conducted by authors at 09:30 CT, July 15, 2014.)

Question: What is the current disposition of the public and congress towards the use of drones in the NAS?

Answer: I think, generally, people accept that drones are here to stay. But there are still serious concerns about implications for privacy. I think the UAV industry has done a good job of educating the public about the vast utility of drones, like tracking weather systems; fighting wildfires; protecting the environment; finding missing persons; etc.

Question: What is being done to address the security issues associated with the use of drones in the NAS?

 Answer: There is a sense of ambivalence about drones. While people recognize that drones can serve the public welfare in many ways, there is still some confusion over the term “drone” itself – whether we are talking about a five pound model or a border patrol aircraft.

Question: Should we try and limit certain aspects of drone technology at the point of sale, and how helpful would it be to have more definitive statutory language in the U.S.C. relating to drones?

Answer: As subcommittee Chairman, Rep. McCaul held a hearing on drones and urged DHS to take a larger role in ensuring that the technology would not be vulnerable to hacking, spoofing, or use as a weapon. To the best of my knowledge, however, DHS has not stepped-up its efforts in that regard. DHS did collaborate with the FAA on the privacy issues where test sites were concerned, but as far as any spoofing or hacking is concerned the DHS has yet to take any serious action. There should be more of a sense of urgency surrounding this issue, and there is not. Given the extraordinarily wide variety of aircraft known as “drones,” starting to categorize the technology in terms of how it is operated, its range and capabilities, and what payloads it is able to carry may be a good way to distinguish among various models as we integrate drones into U.S. airspace.


3) Major Michael: Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) Division Chief, USAF, U.S. CENTCOM

Major Michael is a former USAF RPA pilot and instructor. Today, he leads the global ISR operations program for the USAF at the United States Central Command (CENTCOM). His full name was withheld from publication due to operational security requirements. (Phone interview conducted by author at 13:35 CT, June 30, 2014.)

Question: How will RPAs change the future security landscape within the U.S. and what is the DOD’s disposition with respect to their use on U.S. soil?

Answer: The FAA has drug their feet, that is part of the reason the FAA is facing so much pressure. Expect the enemy is going to fly these [drones] – they will. [Call was disconnected due to network issues]

Question: Regarding security and meeting the challenge of these threats to large venues with dense crowds, what technology could be used? Would portable equipment such as jammers be a viable option?

Answer: You are on to something with this line of thinking. However, if you jam the links they essentially become a cruise missile. Consequently, we need to think along the lines of a “kill switch” – that could just turn them off. Another aspect would be bi-state radar, lasers, etc. Bi-state radar can see something flying as small as a bird. Other possibilities include a registry system for some aspect of technology common to all UAS. This could be registered to whoever buys that equipment. [Authors note: this is similar to what is done with assault weapons. Some might argue there are too many drones already out there. But similar legislation was brought to bear on dynamite and blasting caps. Eventually, the items sold pre-ban/registry went away leaving only licensed product.]


4) Rory Paul: CEO of Volt Aerial Robotics Company

Volt Aerial Robotics is a consultancy based in Saint Louis, Missouri, whose core business is the development, leasing and sale of small autonomous aerial systems for academia, agriculture, environmental services and industry. (Phone interview conducted by author at 18:33 CT, June 26, 2014.)

Question: What is your current assessment, from an industry standpoint, of the FAAs UAS integration plan?

Answer: There are still key safety components missing. At this time, there is no low-cost sense and avoid system applicable to small UAS and large aircraft. At just over one year away, there is also no regulatory component of sense and avoid. This is a vital element to safety where the operation of civil drones in the NAS are concerned. At this time, the onus is still on the UAS operator to keep the equipment clear. What I predict is that the systems will continue to proliferate and then the FAA will back-fill and play catch-up on all the requirements.

Question: What is behind the push for UAS integration in the NAS?

Answer: The 2010 industry report published by AVUSI on the potential economic impacts of UAS systems in the U.S. was a large piece of it. However, AVUSI is a lobby group for the UAS industry and they were paid to write the report. In my opinion, the economic benefits were way over stated. Note: not the entire industry agrees with AVUSI.

Question: How important are the security issues potentially arising of drone operations in the NAS?

Answer: I think they are very important. Recently Hezbollah and the Iranians attempted to fly a drone over a nuclear reactor in Israel. It went for the reactor in one of the most secure airspace systems in the world. Today, I could shut down Saint Louis Lambert International Airport from my basement; all I would have to do is fly up and down the runway. No one would know who was controlling it or from where.

Question: Given drones are supposed to increase in number in the years ahead, do you think the hazards to crowds and other outdoor venues will increase?

Answer: I recently confronted a phantom drone operator who was flying his UAS 500 feet above a crowd of 800. I went and spoke to the man operating it and we got in a pretty heated argument. I said, “Look, what if this thing hits someone?” Looking down the road at these scenarios, all we need is one UAS to hit a person on the ground then it’s all over [the industry will be hit hard].

Question: Given the following solutions: (1) point of sale, (2) legal deterrence, or (2) technological inhibitors such as equipment deployed on site (similar to a TFR), which of these in your opinion presents the most viable solution to threats against the public?

Answer: Point of sale is very much worth exploring. Currently there are export regulations in place, but many companies are skirting these by developing technology here in the U.S. and then having the components manufactured out of the nation. 3D Robotics received approximately $35 million in funding and then began manufacturing in Mexico. From there the autopilot systems are being sold internationally. Putting someone in handcuffs and taking them away is useful, but it has limitations. However, portable radar units have a lot of potential, jamming is also a viable option, however many of the frequencies bands UAS operate on are the same as WiFi (2.4 GHz) – so there are some potential problems there. Mainly, de-conflicting with other networks. So again, trade regulations are not being enforced. The premise of everything you are saying is right.


5) Lt Col. (Ret) Mitchell: Former Director of Training, 3rd Special Operations Squadron, USAF

Lt Col. (Ret) Mitchell is a former USAF Special Operations RPA pilot and instructor. He is also a member of the Steering Committee on the development of RPA programs at a major University. He requested if this study is publically published that his name be withheld for security reasons. (Phone interview conducted by author at 17:10 CT, July 7, 2014.)

Question: How difficult is it for the average person to build and employ RPAs; should this ability be limited?

Answer: Very easily. It’s so easy it’s almost scary. I can go online or to Radio Shack and buy most of the components I need very inexpensively. It’s very cheap technology to purchase – and can be used as an indiscriminate and potent weapon.

 Question: What is domestic terrorism likely to resemble in the future and could it involve drones?

Answer: The nation must assume that there will always be some risk of terrorism. There is hardly a full proof way to look at every aspect of what someone might do as new technology comes on line – thus, it’s hard to defend against. Even if we were to deny links, it’s possible that assets [UAS] would continue to their targets or have triggers that would detonate them if they lost link. It’s very cheap technology to purchase and use as an indiscriminate potent weapon.

Question: How useful would a technological resource be that could be employed in a manner similar to a TFR around high density crowds or other large events and venues?

Answer: Directed kill switches might be a good answer to this. The technology would be good – a deployable asset that would likely be high cost, but reasonable if portable to use at big events. Such technology could play a very important part in the future of an integrated homeland defense.

Question: What will the future of drone operations look like and how will that change the domestic security picture?

Answer: When you get right down to it, what they are good for is very limited in scope. It’s just a marketing hype. You can’t take a quad copter and go land in someone’s yard. I laugh when I see that kind of thought because of where we are at from a liability standpoint. When we have options like Amazon Prime Delivery – there is really no incentive to it [drone delivery]. We are not going to fertilize our lawns with drones when a walk behind spreader is so easy. Going forward, it will be as difficult to manage the unlicensed user in the future as it is now. The nature of it is not too far off from that of video. In other words, not much that we do in public today can be done without being captured on video. The nature of the UAV is a similar mindset – you can’t limit the proliferation of RC [remote controlled] aircraft, weapons, or a balloons. It will be one of the worst security, potential security, issues that we have and that will continue to emerge.

Question: Some say we should not worry about small drones and those not designed to carry weapons – what is your opinion on this?

Answer: It is a very naive approach not to worry about non-weaponized drones. I’m not a chemist but I’m pretty sure you can put a chemical in a water balloon and attach it to an RC plane, walk through Friday afternoon taking coordinates with an iPhone GPS, then 24-hours later, launch an RPA from the parking lot into a full stadium using those coordinates and be there 10 seconds later. They are very fast now.

Question: Of the following three possible solutions, (1) federal regulation as a deterrence to use drones to do harm, (2) point of sale restrictions on technology, or (3) deployable directional technology, which would you recommend investing more time and resources exploring?

Answer: The first two items are more directly related to slowing down the proliferation of users. The question on the third is: how do you get the right people looking at it? I remember back closer to the events of 9/11 there was a lot of banter about why weren’t we prepared for “this” or “that.” Many can spend $50K on security systems for their home – systems that will monitor nearly aspect of the home. But, if you’ve never had a threat you don’t spend money on it. But you and I understand that there is a standing goal to do harm to western society. We understand the need. In fact, we may have such a detailed view that no one else is looking at. Someone who is serious about this like us [himself and the author], may very well have the capability to really do some serious harm. The difference is in the application of the technology.

Question: Does the potentially small payload of drones weighing under 55 pounds diminish the overall threat?

Answer: Dangerous chemicals and substances available in ounces are numerous. I think a study should be considered where they hire someone and say – ‘Go buy one [a drone] and see what you can do.’ You then will know a small plane that can do a hundred miles an hour (with a lithium battery upgrade), launched from x-location that can go y-number of miles can accomplish ‘this.’ Then look at some of the past attacks on subways or some documented aspect of saran gas where ‘this’ many ounces in a balloon or small condom causes ‘this’ much harm in ‘this’ environment, (wind conditions etc.), in a stadium. This kind of practical study will fill in gray areas very quickly. It’s the little guy that’s practicing – the smaller it is the more it’s going to be available.


6) Dr. David Wetham: Professor at the United Kingdom Defense Academy, King’s College, London

Dr Wetham lectures and performs research on ethics in warfare, the Laws of War, this history of warfare, and strategy. His students include British and international officers in the Joint Services Command and Staff College. He holds a PhD in War Studies. (Phone interview conducted by author on July 11, 2014 at 10AM CST.)

Question: Security planners should not be concerned with drones not designed originally to carry weapons. In other words, small drones should not be a concern. In light of the facts we are discussing, do you have an opinion on that?

Answer: I’d say that’s probably a bit naive considering that the first armed drone wasn’t supposed to be an armed drone either; it was a Predator with effectively an ad hoc missile system strapped on to it. I think the question of whether it is purpose built is basically a red herring because you can adapt any piece of hardware and provide it with a military purpose. I don’t think that’s a typical position.

Question: How about the use of deployable anti-drone technologies?

Answer: The idea of deployable anti-drone countermeasures has got to be taken seriously. There are obviously alternatives out there—there are technologies already developed that could be put to alternative uses which might be fairly easily adapted—I would have thought. I’m starting to wonder if trying to get some more details of the security for the Olympics might be useful for you because there was certainly a lot of missile systems brought into the capitol. I wonder if something like the Phalanx technology might be adapted…. It’s one thing using that at sea, but the amount of lead it puts out in the air you wouldn’t want that ending up in the suburbs. The types of things we’re thinking about countering …