WASHINGTON — As US regulators grapple with the safety, privacy and national security concerns posed by a boom in the use of recreational drones, lawmakers worried about their use for malicious ends have advanced legislation aimed at letting Defense Department and Energy Department facilities defend themselves against them.
Two provisions contained in the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act passed by the House Armed Services Committee would extend broad new authorities to the agencies to stop unmanned aerial vehicles deemed a threat to their facilities dedicated to nuclear power and weaponry. The authorities would dovetail with DoE and DoD’s early efforts to develop technology that would discern small drones from birds and take them out.
"That is a very aggressive approach, and one we have yet to see in federal regulations," energy and infrastructure attorney Roland Backhaus, with the firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, said of the bill.
While the US Federal Aviation Administration has yet to report any serious incident involving a drone at a nuclear facility, fears and speculation have been fueled by a commercial quadcopter’s crash landing on the White House lawn last year, and a Massachusetts man’s guilty plea in 2012 to plotting attacks on the Pentagon and US Capitol building with an explosive-laden model plane.
Drones reportedly buzzed nuclear facilities around France 32 times over two months in 2014, according to a report commissioned by Greenpeace, sparking concern the country’s nuclear reactors are unsafe from aerial assaults and jangling nerves in other nations about the potential threat.
Unmanned aerial systems (UAS) small enough to elude radar could be used "by criminals and terrorists" to attack or spy on "critical government and industrial facilities," according to a Jan. 27 Congressional Research Service report. "Somewhat larger UAS could be used to carry out terrorist attacks by serving as platforms to deliver explosives or chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear weapons," said the report, by aviation policy specialist Bart Elias.
Taking no chances given the devastation that could be wrought at such a facility, House Armed Services Committee (HASC) strategic forces subcommittee chairman Mike Rogers, R-Ala., included the two counterdrone provisions in the 2017 NDAA, which the HASC approved April 28.
"The bottom line is the members are tracking the increased prevalence and sophistication of unmanned aerial systems around the country, and they understand the threat these can pose to certain defense facilities," said a congressional staffer.
DoE has 10 active sites across the country that handle the US arsenal of nuclear weapons and material, while DoD controls nuclear missile fields, silos, underground storage and maintenance, as well as nuclear reactors for training and research.
"The chairman is interested in protecting these facilities. It would be a bad day if something happened," the staffer said.
The massive defense policy bill has several hurdles before it becomes law. The language would have to survive a vote on the House floor and reconciliation with the Senate bill due later this month. The reconciled bill will face a vote in both houses of Congress and must be signed by the president.
Under the bill’s mandate for DoD, the defense secretary would develop a means to disrupt, seize, confiscate, control, disable or destroy drones deemed a threat to facilities related to nuclear deterrence, missile defense or the national security space mission.
For DoE, personnel and contractors who think a drone presents "a threat to people, property, or classified information" at a facility that stores or uses special nuclear material would be allowed to "mitigate the threat from, disable, interdict, interfere with" its operation. It varies by DoE facility, but most are operated by private contractors, and physical security is generally provided by third-party companies.
Lawmakers don’t mean to encourage the shooting down of drones, and while the bill permits DoE to do it, its language discourages the use of force in favor of "appropriate escalation," saying "non-kinetic responses should be utilized when feasible to mitigate a threat."
An FAA spokesman declined to comment on the pending legislation, but had this to say:
"Generally, shooting at any aircraft — including unmanned aircraft — poses a significant safety hazard. An unmanned aircraft hit by gunfire could crash, causing damage to persons or property on the ground, or it could collide with other objects in the air."
The legislation comes as federal agencies have been waiting for the FAA to carve out security-based rules for drones, a step mandated by law in 2013. In the meantime, an FAA notice strongly advises pilots of airplanes and drones to avoid — and not "circle or loiter" in — the airspace of critical infrastructure, such as power plants, military bases and prisons.
Many interested parties are watching this space, including federal agencies, security contractors, nuclear facility operators and drone manufacturers — which are looking into geo-fencing software for a UAS to steer itself away from an off-limits area.
"With this opportunity for DoE to take a more aggressive approach, one wonders if this same approach would not get picked up by operators of sensitive facilities, nuclear or otherwise," Backhaus said.
According to a market survey performed by Sandia National Laboratories, part of the DoE that performs national research, a variety of means exist to detect, identify and neutralize a slow- and low-flying UAS — sophisticated sensors, high-energy lasers and signal jammers, water cannons, firearms and trained birds of prey.
There is still key research and development to be done in this sector, according to the counter-UAS (CUAS) survey. It concluded that differentiating targets from background clutter is a problem for existing technology, and that "no complete system appears to exist with evidence of acceptable performance."
Sandia in March announced it wants CUAS vendors to loan their equipment for testing and evaluation, to determine their suitability for "various security installations." The CUAS would target systems that fly slow and slow, and weigh less than 55 pounds.
DoD is also interested in the capability. The US military has since 2010 been conducting its annual Black Dart exercises at Naval Base Ventura County, California, to test a variety of UAS countermeasures.
During an April visit to Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, Georgia, Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work expressed concern about small drones being able to penetrate the security at nuclear missile and submarine bases nationally.
Although Work spoke broadly, he did call out a program in the Netherlands — run by a company called Guard From Above — that uses birds to take out small drones around nuclear power sites as a particularly interesting idea. Kings Bay already uses dolphins to spot any potential underwater threats to the nuclear sub fleet housed there.
Air Force Global Strike Command, which manages the US’ nuclear arsenal, awardeda $75,000 contract for portable systems to counter personal drones to XCOM Wireless, of Long Beach, California, in January. The Air Force solicited a system to disrupt the navigational signals of a "wide range" of UAS targets and minimize collateral effects on friendly assets.
Aaron Mehta contributed to this report.