News & Events > Unmanned time bomb: Is Newark airport drone incursion our ‘Gatwick’ wake-up call?

Unmanned time bomb: Is Newark airport drone incursion our ‘Gatwick’ wake-up call?

  • Jan 30, 2019
  • Categories: Counter Drone News

Newark Liberty International Airport, one of the nation’s 15 busiest airports, closed for more than an hour last Tuesday night after an unauthorized drone entered its airspace. This incident occurred less than 30 days after London’s Gatwick airport drone incursion, which closed that airport for 17 hours and cost airlines $65 million in delay and re-routing costs.

While these incidents garnered media attention, they are just the latest in a string of collisions and near-misses that correlate to a rise in civilian drone use — including a 2017 drone collision with a Skyjet aircraft on final descent to Quebec City, and a possible drone collision with an Aeromexico 737 near Tijuana in December. Beyond aviation, drones were used in a 2018 attempt to assassinate Venezuela’s president and to attack coalition forces in Iraq and Syria, and even may have aided in the brazen prison escape of one of France’s most notorious gangsters.

At various times in our nation’s history, the rapid advent of new technology — for example, telephones, the internet and, as I have asserted previously, “big data” — have rendered existing laws, regulations and precedents obsolete. Incidents such as Tuesday’s, the growing ubiquity of cheap commercial drones, and laws or regulations focused on traditional piloted aircraft, indicate we are at yet another technology-driven inflection point that must be addressed.

This is not to say the legislative branch has been mute on the issue. Prominent aspects of both the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization Act of 2018 and the Preventing Emerging Threats Act of 2018, address policy gaps — with the latter authorizing the departments of Homeland Security and Justice to use reasonable force to “disable, damage and destroy” unmanned aircraft deemed a threat. Both acts are deferential to the FAA, which, as recently as July 2018, released a strongly-worded memorandum discouraging U.S. airports from employing drone detection systems or even trials, citing safety and interference concerns, and noting that non-compliant airports may jeopardize “grant assurances.”

The FAA is right to carefully and cautiously evaluate active drone denial systems at airports — especially systems that employ RF or GPS-jamming technology, which could disrupt flights and have a “cure is worse than the disease” effect. Passive systems, however, that can detect and locate illicit drones from inherent radio signatures — and even triangulate pilots on the ground — pose less of a threat to commercial aircraft.

While certain critical installations may need the ability to knock a drone out of the sky now, a prudent first step for commercial airports may be simply detecting a drone incursion, alerting airline pilots and dispatching law enforcement to detain the drone pilot, using technology that is already available. For example, following the Gatwick incident, the United Kingdom saw a surge in the deployment of drone detection solutions, prompting one security minister to state that these systems now can be used across the U.K.

Another benefit to a network of passive drone sensors is the dual-use role they can play in the near future. For example, establishing safe corridors for package delivery or other lawful drone uses will require pre-registering drone flight paths, but also the ability to detect a route deviation. Radio, acoustic, electro-optical and even radar-based sensors designed to detect small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) can serve the future purpose of enhancing the FAA’s ability to respond to dangerous flight-path deviations.

Another concern with current and proposed legislation is that it grants drone take-down authority only to federal officials. As the number of drones continues to increase, and as their uses expand, delegating this authority to state and local jurisdictions will prove important. While recent drone incursions have caused only a nuisance for travelers, hostile drones armed with an explosive payload pose a more sinister threat — one that likely would be perpetrated long before the nearest equipped federal law enforcement officer arrived. Critical infrastructure providers, including airports, utilities and entertainment venue owners, cannot rely on federal authorities alone to detect and defeat a hostile drone, especially one moving at high speed and intent on harm.

Unfortunately, a rise in drone-related security incidents is predictable. Like other modern problems, countering this threat without jeopardizing aircraft safety or banning lawful drone activity will require agile laws and creative regulations. It also will require traditionally possessive federal agencies to lessen their grip on the testing and evaluation of counter-drone technology, and empowering airport operators to detect and triangulate hostile drone pilots.

Simply put, the Newark airport incursion is just the latest in a series of wake-up calls that cannot go unanswered by U.S. lawmakers, regulators and airport operators.

Michael Chertoff is executive chairman and co-founder of The Chertoff Group, a security and risk management advisory firm, and served as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) from 2005-2009. He is the author of “Exploding Data: Reclaiming Our Cybersecurity in the Digital Age.” The Chertoff Group is a frequent adviser to clients in the defense technology and aviation industries, including clients that work in the sensor and detection markets.

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