DronesDrone Popularity, Potential Risk Soar, So Too Should Preparedness

Published 21 July 2021

Benign hobbyists often use drones, but these small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) can be exploited for any number of illegal activities, thereby posing a significant threat to facilities related to critical infrastructure and national security.

In the last few years, drones have flown over, and in some cases landed within, restricted areas across our country—with notable incidents in our nation’s capital. In 2015, a quadcopter crashed on the grounds of the White House. Later that same year, a drone crash-landed on the White House Ellipse, near the South Lawn. Though benign hobbyists often use them, these small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) can be exploited for any number of illegal activities, thereby posing a significant threat to facilities related to critical infrastructure and national security. This is why Counter-UAS (C-UAS) technology is so important.

The popularity of sUAS, or drones, has grown as the cost has become more affordable. Their nefarious capabilities continue to increase, as well. They can attain high speeds and move in three dimensions with the potential to carry dangerous payloads, smuggle contraband, and conduct illicit surveillance. The applications are endless, which creates a formidable challenge for our national security agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security (DHSScience and Technology Directorate (S&T).

Adaptation is key to ensuring resilience. S&T is supporting C-UAS research, testing, training and evaluation across multiple DHS missions and components. A number of tests have been executed over the last year and more are planned in coordination with the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), U.S. Secret Service (USSS), Federal Protective Services (FPS), and Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

“It’s important for us to determine how technologies perform in operational environments, especially in urban environments, where we have very high radio frequency or spectrum noise,” said S&T Program Manager Shawn McDonald. “There are also tall buildings where you have reflections of that energy. So, we need to adequately characterize the performance of these systems. We’re testing various commercial and government systems against realistic threats to obtain those performance characteristics so our DHS Components clearly understand what the system does and how effective it is against those threats.”

New Legal Authority Equals New Security Capabilities
Until recently, when a DHS agent or officer observed a drone that was violating restricted airspace, or was a credible threat to the public, they could not do much to counteract. Agents could only warn the operator that they were violating air space. DHS could detect, identify, monitor, and track unmanned aircraft using traditional radar or electro-optical/infra-red systems, but with the rising incidents of unauthorized usage, it became apparent that mitigation authority was also necessary.

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