Debuting in 1962, “The Jetsons” depicted the family of the future, with people movers, tube travel, vehicles that folded up into brief cases for parking purposes, home computers, internet, microwave ovens, CT x-ray for medical purposes, cellphones, and speed limits of up to 2,500 miles per hour. Fast-forward to today, as roadways become more congested, one logical alternative is to go up. Unmanned aircraft systems bring the nation a step closer to the Jetson way of life.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), coordinating with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), currently serves as the lead agency in developing the Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Traffic Management system to facilitate low-altitude UAS operation. Since they were developed, UAS (commonly known as drones) have transitioned from very large, very expensive products (reserved for military and spy agencies for weapon delivery or reconnaissance purposes) to much smaller, less expensive, commercially available models (used by hobbyists, industry, scientific research, and the first responder community).
Today, UAS are affordable, come in different shapes and sizes, and have different capabilities, which have made them one of the hottest gift ideas for the past couple years. With many benefits and requests for them to be integrated into the national airspace, this trend is expected to continue well into the future. In addition, individuals or groups can use UAS as disruptive technology for nefarious purposes such as invading privacy, advancing criminal enterprises, or conducting terrorist activity.
Potential Threats in the Sky
Still, for many, UAS are seen as toys, something to play with in the backyard or at the local park. For others, this is a new threat to personal security, corporate assets, and critical infrastructure that will force those on the ground to always look up. Two key events sparked debate for further regulation and mitigation of this technology and its capabilities: the UAS incursion onto the south lawn of the White House in January 2015; and the manned, small, low- and slow-flying gyrocopter that landed on the U.S. Capitol’s West Lawn in April 2015.
Since the late 1990s and early 2000s, threats from the air and from remote-controlled devices have existed. These threats range from benign to catastrophic. For example, United States Park Police (USPP) officers stationed in New York when the 9/11 attacks occurred encountered a series of incidents that raised great concern. Within a six-week span in 2001: (1) a paraglider crashed into the Statue of Liberty torch on 23 August; (2) four airplanes crashed into the twin towers in New York City, the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, on 11 September; and (3) a remote-controlled aircraft with a four-foot wingspan washed up on the beach area on the backside of Liberty Island on 1 October. Although the remote aircraft was not found to have been involved in any wrongdoing, the incident sparked new public safety concerns from law enforcement officials in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Although UAS was not a significant issue during 9/11, the threat and potential benefits of such technology have evolved since that time. At the Washington, D.C., branch of the USPP, officers respond to many incidents and special events. On 16 September 2013, for example, a multi-aviation response to the Washington Navy Yard shooting required careful coordination to ensure the safety and security of everyone involved. Helicopters certainly played a critical role that day, and remain the best option for some operations (e.g., hoist rescues, medical evacuations, and SWAT insertions). However, under some circumstances, UAS could provide safer, more efficient, and less costly alternatives. In the “fog of war,” an overhead perspective offers several benefits:
- Helps clarify communications between many mutual aid assets;
- Identifies the “good guys” and “bad guys”;
- Operates when vehicle gridlock on the ground occurs; and
- Conducts building searches through windows and on rooftops.
Enforcement Challenges on the Ground
On 19 June 2014, it became illegal to launch, land, or fly over any National Park Service (NPS) property (under 36 CFR 1.5(f) “Violation of Closure and Public Use Limits: Launching, Landing, or Operation of Unmanned Aircraft”). In collaboration with FAA, U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), United States Capitol Police, and other agencies, USPP recognized the growing threat that UAS could pose and the agency’s need to develop plans to mitigate these potential threats. For example, restricted airspace enables USPP to safely operate its aviation assets during large-scale events, but these assets are limited (e.g., helicopter limits ability to get too close to concerts and venues where acoustics can be affected and weather can restrict flight plans).
Despite NPS restrictions, UAS continued to operate on NPS sites in Washington, D.C., New York City, and San Francisco, California. Following is a list of just some of the incidents that occurred in 2015. All of these events highlighted the need for further planning, coordination, and mitigation efforts:
- 26 January – UAS landed on the White House south lawn;
- 15 April – a gyrocopter landed at the U.S. Capitol;
- 12 June – a UAS flew into the chamber of the Jefferson Memorial;
- July – a British national launched a UAS from Liberty Island, circled the Statue of Liberty, took high-resolution video, and landed undetected;
- July – a week after the Liberty Island video, the same British national flew the UAS over the Washington Monument;
- 19 July – a toy quadcopter crashed into the Statue of Liberty; and
- 16 August – a quadcopter flew from Liberty State Park to Liberty Island (after park closure) then to Ellis Island (individual was arrested after NPS personnel saw the aircraft overhead).
Identifying the reasons for these security breaches have helped officials thwart other UAS attempts, but more is still needed. Several reasons that require ongoing planning efforts include the need to:
- Define roles and responsibility for airspace;
- Develop stronger deterrents for violating laws (e.g., in D.C., the fine is only $110);
- Provide screening staff with proper training and education (e.g., screeners at Battery Park are busier than many airport terminals); and
- Ensure that security personnel recognize potential threats (e.g., the UAS taken onto Liberty Island went through an x-ray machine, but was considered a toy).
Multidiscipline Roundtable – Discussing Threats & Benefits
U.S. families may be on the path to becoming the Jetsons of the year 2062, but a lot still has to happen in terms of regulation, policy, counter capabilities, education, and continued development of the UAS Traffic Management. A roundtable discussion with senior subject matter experts representing various communities of interest addressed the benefits and threats the nation faces as this technology evolves and becomes integrated into the daily operations of various industries. Read the proceedings from this event, which features knowledge and advice from the following perspectives: defense; first responder (law enforcement, fire, emergency medical services); intelligence; science, technology, and industry; critical infrastructure; and legal.