Drones are everywhere — they are capturing memories at weddings, helping journalists record news, delivering pizzas in New Zealand, and hovering in backyards as neighbor kids try out their new gadgets. The potential for innovation in the small drone space is limitless and we are on the cusp of great things. Beyond personal use, drone innovation has improved public safety and disaster response — recent examples include functioning in the place of a helicopter team to locate a missing child in North Carolina, playing an integral role in hurricane relief efforts in Texas, and enabling better firefighting in Los Angeles. But with such technological advances comes the need to secure the next age of small drone innovation.
Unfortunately, with every innovation, there are bad actors looking to exploit the technology. U.S. and allied soldiers have been attacked in Iraq and other war-torn areas by terrorists using small, commercially available drones to drop explosives. Last fall, an explosive-laden drone was spotted for the first time in North America along the Mexico-U.S. border, where cartels are also using drones to carry drugs. Small drones can interfere with aircraft, interrupt sporting events and easily breach other public venues. In fact, it is already happening. A drone was used to drop hundreds of pamphlets at a November 49ers football game, then the same drone was used again a few minutes later to do the same thing at an Oakland Raiders game just across the San Francisco Bay. And though it was just pamphlets in these instances, it reveals a larger threat that our country must address.
American laws are not keeping pace with innovation. Right now, even though we have the technical ability to stop rogue drones, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice are not authorized to intercept or impede a hostile drone threat—something criminals can easily exploit. That is because a law more than three decades old grants drones the same protections as a passenger-carrying 747 airliner. Only the U.S. Departments of Defense and Energy have exemptions from this law and only in certain circumstances. Without change, the laws we have on the books will compromise our collective security.
Before we have a crisis, we must fix the legal barriers that are sidelining our best problem-solving technology so we can mitigate threats to protect U.S. citizens and our critical infrastructure.
Advanced counter-drone technologies provide the way forward, but our laws need to allow them freedom to operate. Counter-drone technology exists and can create a type of physical firewall to block bad actors from designated areas, while simultaneously permitting responsible drone hobbyists and commercial drone operators. But a ready solution means nothing if the people charged with protecting American lives — including the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Border Patrol — do not have the authority to use it.
Recently Congress has taken steps in the right direction to modernize our national security capabilities and enable the commercial drone industry. Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.) introduced legislation — The Safeguarding America’s Skies Act, H.R. 5366 — that is a step toward correcting the larger problem of using a 1984 policy to govern drones in flight today. Specifically, her legislation will allow federal law enforcement officers within the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice to intercept rogue drones. And while demand for counter-drone technology is far broader than just these agencies, and certainly extends to state and local law enforcement, beginning with the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice is a solid start. They need legal air cover to do their jobs with the best tools in counter-drone technology.
Federal law needs to modernize with today’s threats and enable the use of technologies that can help save lives. Passing the Safeguarding America’s Skies Act will help us get ahead of potential national security threats and promote public confidence, which will also help to advance bipartisan efforts aimed at improving drone regulations, smartly integrating drones into commerce and creating more opportunities for additional public service capacities.
Security must keep up with innovation in order to benefit society. Nowhere is this more true than with small drones. The commercial drone industry, and our continued safety and security, depend on it.
Jaz Banga is the CEO and cofounder of Airspace Systems Inc., a counter-drone company founded in 2015 by a group of drone enthusiasts who saw the tremendous benefits and risks of emerging unmanned aircraft technology.
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