Until the federal government decides how to best secure the skies from unmanned aerial systems (UAS), first responders, emergency managers, and public safety professionals will have a big problem to deal with. However, in light of the recent hurricanes and wildfires, this technology is also a real game changer for search and rescue and other unforeseen positive uses. Efforts are being made, but more regulation, enforcement, and concepts of operation are still needed to define this transformative technology.

Problems abound with integrating drones into the national airspace system, and countering UAS use by potential attackers – whether criminal, terrorist, or hostile foreign government – is a huge concern. Until authorities figure out how to ensure community safety and commercial benefits, this technology will move beyond the capability of regulators.

The Obama and Trump administrations have both emphasized the need to safely integrate UAS technology into the National Airspace System, while ensuring privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties. On 15 February 2015, The White House released “Presidential Memorandum: Promoting Economic Competitiveness While Safeguarding Privacy, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties in Domestic Use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems.” That memorandum addressed two key topics: (1) UAS policies and procedures for federal government use – privacy protections, civil rights and liberties protections, accountability, transparency, and report; and (2) multi-stakeholder engagement process. On 2 August 2016, the administration made “New Commitments to Accelerate the Safe Integration of Unmanned Aircraft Systems” and announced $35 million for new UAS research funding through the National Science Foundation over the next five years.

To address issues related to the integration of UAS into the National Airspace System, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International brought together key stakeholders of the public and private sectors as well as academia for a workshop on “Drones and the Future of Aviation.” Breakout sessions focused on three areas: (1) low-altitude airspace management/UAS traffic management; (2) expanded operations for small UAS; and (3) comprehensive integration to create a smarter National Airspace System.

Drones – Force Multipliers & Security Threats
©iStock.com/Zerbor

Trump Administration Plans

The current administration has also expressed plans to expand the integration of UAS as well as enact legislation that counters the illicit use of drones by malicious actors. On 22 June 2017, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy held another event that brought together industry leaders and federal agencies to address “American Leadership in Emerging Technology.” Legislation has been proposed to help close the gap between what the law currently allows and what law enforcement officers need to effectively counter these systems when misused.

In a statement of administration policy on 7 September 2017 – in response to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018 – the administration addressed concern that counter UAS was not included. The statement noted the need to develop a legal framework to guard against misuse and enable effective oversight and privacy protections. The new proposed legislation has a federal focus, but also recognizes that state and local law enforcement agencies may need countermeasures as well. The best and most appropriate way to build capabilities beyond the federal government is still not certain. However, current legislation does not preclude the delegation of their use to appropriate local authorities if used for official use, with federal oversight, and with properly trained operators.

Most recently, on 25 October 2017, The White House released a “Presidential Memorandum for the Secretary of Transportation,” which focused on the establishment of a pilot program for UAS integration within 90 days, with proposals being accepted by the FAA by that time. The three-year program has three key objectives: (1) to test and evaluate models for involving state, local, and tribal governments in developing and enforcing federal regulations for UAS; (2) to encourage UAS development and safety testing for new and innovative concepts of operation; and (3) to develop federal guidelines and regulatory decisions for UAS operations. This document expresses the federal government’s commitment to promote the following: innovation and economic development; enhancement of transportation and workplace safety; improvement of emergency response as well as search and rescue functions; and the competitive and efficient use of the radio spectrum.

The White House National Security Council also plans to coordinate federal-level working groups on how to look at this emerging technology. The working groups will examine how UAS technologies may be applied effectively from a research and development aspect and from an ethical standpoint. One of the biggest challenges, though, is how to build response policies relevant to federal, state, local, and private actors. To address this challenge, more dialogue is needed with all key government and nongovernment stakeholders.

Input From Various Key Stakeholders

To promote an understanding of threats and capabilities, technology that is being developed, enforcement of rules, threat mitigation activities, and ways to leverage new technology, the Preparedness Leadership Council International hosted a roundtable discussion in June 2017 with senior subject matter experts. These experts represented the following communities of interest: defense; first responder (law enforcement, fire, emergency medical services); intelligence; science, technology, and industry; critical infrastructure; and legal. The discussion addressed the various benefits and threats of unmanned aircraft systems and ways in which this evolving technology is being integrated into the daily operations of various industries. The key takeaways from that discussion will be published soon in a special report.

Catherine L. Feinman

Catherine L. Feinman, M.A., joined Domestic Preparedness in January 2010. She has more than 35 years of publishing experience and currently serves as editor of the Domestic Preparedness Journal, DomesticPreparedness.com, and The Weekly Brief. She works with writers and other contributors to build and create new content that is relevant to the emergency preparedness, response, and recovery communities. She received a bachelor’s degree in International Business from the University of Maryland, College Park, and a master’s degree in Emergency and Disaster Management from American Military University.

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