Drones in America have evolved from simple bomb delivery vehicles to a broad spectrum of military and civilian aircraft, and the community has evolved to match. Today’s drone community owes much to the century of work and untold thousands of dollars that were spent to bring the civil National Airspace System (NAS) and the aircraft that fly within it into being. My own grandfather was the “brains” of Operation Aphrodite, one of America’s first attempts to use unmanned systems in war rather than just for target practice. He moved on after WWII to transportation policy, working under every administration from Eisenhower through Reagan to bring cutting edge military technology to general aviation. This technology improved aviation safety and spurred the growth of the aircraft industry.
I founded Falcon Foundation UAS L.L.C. with my partner Jeffrey Anders to do for drones what my grandfather did for manned aviation: to find solutions in government that will enable the unmanned systems industry to thrive with a special emphasis on small businesses. Today, we are pleased to announce a new partnership: the C-UAS Coalition. This hybrid between a defense policy think tank user/manufacturer group will focus on the technology and issues surrounding the growing but unsustainably regulated counter-unmanned aircraft systems (C-UAS) industry. This coalition will leverage its collective experience and expertise in aviation policy to unlock doors for the counter-drone industry at the highest levels of government. It will also strive to overcome a number of misconceptions and prejudices that have plagued this industry so far in its development. This article attempts to briefly explain some of these core issues, and explain why this coalition and the counter-drone industry are vital to our local, state, and national security as the drone community continues to diversify.
It Didn’t Take Long for Aircraft to Become Weapons
The history of manned aircraft demonstrates that war has been extremely influential in the development of aerial technology. The same will be true for drones.
It took less than ten years after the Wright Brothers’ flight at Kitty Hawk for the first person to fly a plane and drop a brick on someone in a nefarious manner. Pistols, long rifles, and a rotating turret with a machine gun attached soon followed then a machine gun mounted on the front that was timed to shoot in between the prop’s blades, which ushered in the era of the dogfight. Bombs were soon invented that could be dropped with limited precision, and then forward fired missiles when jet engines made the machine gun obsolete. Drones will inevitably follow a similar path.
Drones are cheaper, easier to fly, and easier to maintain than manned aircraft. Recent improvements in batteries, motors, and miniaturisation of cell phone technology has put very capable aircraft into the hands of the general public. Technology will continue to make its way from the battlefield to the civilian world for as long as these aircraft continue to fly.
Wait and Fight or Fight and Wait?
In the C-UAS industry today, there are two commonly recognised categories of security risks: those who have not been educated on the dangerous potential of drones, and nefarious actors who intentionally use them to carry out dubious plans. Remote pilots in the first group adamantly exercise and sometimes exceed their right to fly freely wherever they like. This is a selfish way of thinking, especially when national security is at stake. This group generally understands that drones can present a security threat, but argues that we should wait until we have an actual problem to fight. The latter group is, of course, silent on the matter.
As Patrick Egan of sUAS News consistently says, “there are places that drones should not fly.”. These include prisons, military bases, large crowd gatherings, sporting events and any location near high profile dignitary or presidential transportation. Prisons are one obvious use case for C-UAS, and an area in which I have some additional experience as a consultant. It is a basic security principle that guns and contraband have no place in a prison system. Drones have already been used to smuggle illicit items into prisons across North America. C-UAS should be deployed to protect these sensitive environments before that smuggling escalates to weapons or other security threats.
We should have a plan to protect national security and infrastructure assets before there is a problem. Countermeasures are proactive by definition: “a measure or action taken to counter or offset another.” – (Webster Dictionary). As the capabilities of C-UAS progresses, bad actors’ abilities to overcome mitigation efforts will also improve, creating an inevitable cat-and-mouse battle of technology. It is essential that the C-UAS industry get out in front of this race. In addition, the first group of pilots must understand that one person’s garbage is another’s gold – in this case, is data.
Pioneering Techniques for C-UAS
The technology for C-UAS is at an early developmental stage. The industry currently needs better electronics for detection, better technology for kinetic mitigation efforts, better radar equipment, and cooperation between agencies to educate the community to detect and deter bad actors. Any effective C-UAS system must use multiple defensive measures for detection, mitigation and threat data acquisition. For example, C-UAS can actually amplify the effect of a vehicle carrying a biological or chemical agent if they activate or spread that agent with an explosive projectile or another kinetic measure. A more precise kinetic measure would be to catch the drone in a net and lower it to the ground using a fired projectile with a “reserve” parachute. Another method would be to deliver the net from a flying drone. The extra rotors, cords and parachutes involved add complexity and create the possibility of a second drone crashing onto the asset, but that method is also worth exploring. Other electronics under development include passive radar equipment that can autonomously detect drones, projectiles, objects and animals within a perimeter. This is particularly useful in large open spaces.
Webster defines “data” as “things known or assumed as facts, making the basis of reasoning or calculation.” According to the Economist, data has surpassed oil as the world’s most valuable commodity. Before drones became popular, individuals or organizations worried about visual privacy could simply put up a fence and call it secure. Manned aircraft were large, noisy, and easily detected. Now that drones can fly over any fence, many commercial owners fear their intellectual property may be viewed for industrial espionage, competitive advantage, or outright theft.
When I went to about a dozen major energy companies/associations in late 2015 early 2016 to explain the benefits of UAS, every single organization wanted to know how to prevent them from flying near their assets. There were many reasons for this concern, but the most pressing was intellectual property protection. They were particularly concerned that their methods for transmission, refinement, and facility management might be exposed to their competition. These organizations understandably don’t want anyone outside of an employee or the government to know what they are doing or how they are doing it. Also, it is their right by intellectual property law to protect their investments and to be able to conduct business in this manner to stay competitive in a free market. They were also universally concerned about a drone crashing into their structures, causing damage and outages which might produce substantial losses in revenue. The C-UAS industry is primarily driven by demand from commercial asset owners like these who want to protect the airspace around their physical assets, and one of their primary concerns will be the privacy and security of their data for years to come.
The intersection between aerial data collection and the information technology sector is quickly evolving. As one recent Wired article showed, certain hackers have used malware to repurpose the light from a blinking CD-ROM drive as a data transmission device. By flying a drone with a line of sight to the drive, this malware can send any of the computer’s data to the drone. Because IT companies are also concerned about new data exfiltration measures such as this, they too are increasingly interested in C-UAS.
Today’s drones are flying computers, yet they use extremely simplistic data security measures – if they have any at all. This makes them directly vulnerable to more traditional hacking and data mining. For instance, imagine a competitor hacking a mining company’s drone to steal its survey data. This could be done using a drone to hack another drone, which could then be used as an attack vector to hack the company’s servers back at its base of operations. The data that would be stolen is potentially worth the price of the expedition to a competitor. Alternatively, a black-hat hacker could simply find and sell this data to a that competitor. Imagine if a hacker stole drone data from fishing companies and sold it to a competitor all the locations they have used drones in the last week. It is not illegal to use a drone to fish in international waters many companies have now started using them to obtain data on various schools of fish movements. These are all serious complications with using drones and providing security to protect the data – the twenty-first century’s “new oil.”
The FAA Employees and Agency Are Not Evil or Anti-Drones
As a regulatory body, the FAA has done an excellent job of regulating manned aviation. The United States has one of the world’s best safety records in aviation, which it owes to the FAA’s well-developed standards and “safety culture”. This culture is more than just procedures: FAA employees understand that people’s lives depend on their smart choices at work. The FAA’s job is even tougher for C-UAS. While industry outsiders might imagine FAA to be the main regulatory agency when it comes to C-UAS, the agency has repeatedly expressed interest that it would review another agency be responsible for off airport problems with drones. The FAA sees airport and airspace safety as its main concerns – priorities which may or may not overlap with C-UAS. From a pragmatic perspective, many onlookers agree that drone technology is moving too quickly for the FAA. It seems foolish to think they would have the additional time and resources to properly oversee C-UAS.
Rumours have circulated for several years suggesting that the FAA is in too deep to handle drones and something new should be created. Details are secretive and sketchy at best, but it is possible that UAS could be put in the hands of a private company with experience in aviation, airspace management, and the safety culture has already proven effective by the FAA. Such an organisation would free the FAA’s managerial resources and allow it to more flexibly navigate technology and commerce in a very fluid environment.
The FAA was never intended to be a governing body for people with such a low barrier of entry to the NAS. Until recently, every pilot was vetted by FAA-certified flight instructors and the FAA itself. The aviation community policed its own users by example and correction. Even with that higher barrier of entry, the FAA was not designed to handle security or threats, which prompted the creation of agencies like TSA under DHS. Today, anyone with a credit card and limited computer skills can watch a few YouTube videos, override his or her drone’s on-board security features, and violate controlled airspace – a feat that was virtually impossible only a decade or so ago. C-UAS is a multi-agency problem, and must not be laid solely at the feet of the FAA.
C-UAS is not Anti-Drone
Some aspects of unmanned systems can be scary. The response should not be fear, but
awareness. Some will inevitably accuse the C-UAS industry of being “anti-drone” or using fear-mongering to sell its product. In reality, potential C-UAS clients are banging down the industry’s doors to get their hands on this equipment. C-UAS will soon become actionable security tools that use threat models and quantifiable accuracy to combat real security threats. The defence and private sectors will be well-suited to develop this technology if the regulatory environment improves.
What to do?
If you have read this far, you are very likely interested in C-UAS yourself. Are you concerned with the protection of your facility? Do you want to stay current on policy and technology trends? Are you a C-UAS equipment manufacturer, a former military member with electronic warfare experience, or electronic signal processing SME? If you answered “yes” to any of those questions, please consider joining the C-UAS Coalition today as a founding member. On one side of the house is our military-sponsored think tank to develop tactics and technology. On the other side of the house is our policy and commercial civil defence side. We are a United States-created group who advocate sharing information with other countries but carefully guards technology development as a matter of national security. We are in the very early stages of the process to be invited to hold meetings, summits, and demonstrations in the Washington, D.C. area at several military bases due to our strong professional connections and reputation. The C-UAS Coalition represents an opportunity to collaborate with the best of the best, a group of top individuals that has taken several years to assemble due to those individuals’ sensitive work in national security. We are actively seeking founding members who would like to gain access to our private network and support our initiatives. Please click here to contact us to find out how to join.
Co-founder C-UAS Coalition & Falcon Foundation UAS, L.L.C.
Email: [email protected]