After both Heathrow and Gatwick airports were forced to shut down due to drone activity in the area, they purchased “military-grade anti-drone apparatus.” This legitimate response to a potential security risk was starkly juxtaposed by the United State’s Federal Aviation Authority (FAA)’s Transportation Department just a few weeks later when they proposed more leniency for drone aircraft.
The proposed U.S. regulations specifically allow for flying drones at night and over crowds. Current rules prohibit both operating scenarios unless a waiver application process is completed, and an exception granted.
The changes are intended to address the demand for increased latitude in the use of drone technology in commercial and private applications. But from a safety, privacy and security standpoint, both changes will further complicate anti-drone strategy development.
Drone-Related Security Risks in the Age of Google and Amazon
The FAA’s proposal does not entirely ignore the safety concerns surrounding drone usage; U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao noted in a speech that “the department is keenly aware that there are legitimate public concerns about drones, concerning safety, security and privacy.” Moreover, beginning February 25, the FAA required that the registration number it issues be visible on the outside of the drone aircraft as opposed to the inside, allowing “a person to view the unique identifier directly without handling the drone.” According to law enforcement specialists, this may protect inspectors from a concealed explosive device.
However, the other proposed changes would certainly expand an individual user’s ability to use their drone, if largely for recreational purposes. Just last year, the number of registered drones in the U.S. topped one million. Perhaps more pressingly, large private companies – such as Google and Amazon – will have much more leeway in terms of how they can implement drones for their services.
The release of a video – which turned out to be a hoax – that depicts an Amazon blimp releasing dozens of delivery drones above a nondescript populated area was enough to send a chill down the spines of many viewers. Some Twitter users even went so far as to call it a “dystopian harbinger” that “will haunt your nightmares.”
In actuality, drone delivery is not scary and is likely to become a premium delivery service for endless aisle e-commerce retailers like Amazon. Still, if the new FAA rules take hold, individual organizations may find themselves defining or redefining the security measures necessary to mitigate the potential risks of drone threats.
Proposed FAA Regulations: What’s So Different?
In addition to the current requirements, the FAA will require additional recurring training to obtain and maintain a remote pilot-in-command certification required to operate at night and above people. Under the new regulations, language was clarified indicating the remote pilot is responsible for determining if the drone is mechanically safe to operate and safe to use at the flight location, including in the event of loss of control for any reason.
With respect to enhanced safety requirements, the new FAA rules’ highlights require the following:
- During night operation, the drone must be equipped with anti-collision lights.
- The manufacturer (or anyone making any modifications to the drone as they assume the manufacturer’s role) must demonstrate to the FAA that the drone meets and is labeled for the appropriate category (Category 2 and 3 requirements are performance-based).
- Category 1: Total drone weight less than 0.55 lbs.
- Category 2: Drone will not result in injury to a person more severe than the impact from a rigid object with a kinetic energy transfer of 11 ft-lbs. Does not contain any exposed moving parts that could lacerate human skin.
- Category 3 – Drone will not result in injury to a person more severe than the impact from a rigid object with a kinetic energy transfer of 25 ft-lbs. Does not contain any exposed moving parts that could lacerate human skin.
Category 1 and 2 Drones can be operated over open, large gatherings. Category 3 Drones are restricted to closed or restricted access gatherings closed to the public and their use is contingent on notification to all persons that overhead drone flights may occur.
Detection and Disruption as More Drones Take Flight
As security leaders at Heathrow Airport – and any airport in the United States – might tell you, these proposed drone regulations pit safety and security against both commercial entities’ and individuals’ freedom to use this technology. A balance between these two priorities must be reached, but even with the above-mentioned parameters for drone use, the question remains as to how to protect an individual or entity from an individual using a drone for malicious purposes.
Just last summer I addressed some of these concerns and noted that detection – not disruption – was the best countermeasure strategy for a potentially volatile drone. While I stand by that statement, the FAA has blurred the lines even further regarding the ease by which individuals can detect a drone that is legally entering a space, regardless of the pilot’s intentions.
As security professionals, we will continue to monitor the progress of these proposed changes and recognize that drones are increasingly becoming a part of daily life – and a risk factor that you may want to increasingly incorporate in your security planning.