Drones: Safety or Security?

Feb. 18, 2019

Since drones first came on the market, we have seen a number of stories about the very real potential for in-flight contact with commercial aircraft, and several temporary airport shutdowns because of reported close-calls.  FAA has just posted two new rulemaking notices regarding drones, with comments due April 15, 2019.  But from a security perspective, there is an understanding that the good guys will probably follow the rules and airspace operational constraints, all of which are ignored by the bad guys (and just-plain stupid ones) who don’t give a damn about your stinkin’ rules.  

 I am of the opinion that there is very little airport security can do about them; it’s an FAA airspace issue.  Most airport jurisdictions end at the fence line, so if there has been no intervention by then, it’s already far too late.  With only a few-pixel reflective profile, standard radar can’t see them coming, and not at all while they are hovering.  Any effective line-of-sight surveillance technology would have to monitor 360 degrees at all low altitudes 24/7 for several miles – at night.  Recent Government counter-drone tests couldn’t identify rogue UAS. Higher performance radars generated a large number of false sightings generating extensive unnecessary response. FAA has advised small air-strip operators not to obtain counter-drone systems as they could be in violation of multiple spectrum management laws if they do.

And then what?  What’s the airport response capability, particularly in a close-in urban environment with office complex and residential launching areas less than a mile from the runway?  It’s not just a potential aircraft collision aloft or during takeoff; larger drones can have a significant load-carrying (read: “explosive”) capacity

I’m aware of one line of defensive thinking –which may not be totally  accurate, but the potential is frightening -  that frequency jamming, especially across a wide RF spectrum,  could have seriously disruptive consequences in the immediate airport environment ... ATC transmissions, ground operations, medical equipment, pacemakers, scientific laboratories, emergency communications, disruption of other fast-growing category of autonomous ground vehicles at high speed (both landside and airside, and they don’t need a suicide driver), and more...

Similarly, the government avoids shoot-down scenarios at all costs in urban areas – where is the debris falling; what’s beyond the target -   if I miss the drone, I hit the terminal. –  If it’s moving toward any target at, say, 50 mph, and assuming it’s “visible” at night and detected at 3 miles out, you have about 3 minutes to mount a response before impact.

Sorry for all the negatives, but that’s what the airport industry faces – there’s no up-side and no realistic capability available to the airport to keep the drones away when they can come from any/every direction at any time, through territory they don’t control, with technology that doesn’t yet work. It’s not even useful to put up a sign that says “Protected Against Drones by the by US Government” That tells me what I already know - “nothing bad happened – so far”.