The CUAS industry is plagued with problems from the illegal nature of rogue drone pilots to the fact that the equipment is illegal to use for civilians to protect their assets, the industry has many problems.
CUAS equipment is currently illegal to use for civilians and asset owners, people who own venues for large crowds and private companies like those who own prisons and currently do not have the ability to defend their assets from rogue drone pilots. Incidents reported by the FAA are steadily increasing from the number of reports the FAA received in 2014 vs 2018 a lot has changed exponentially from 1 a month to more than thousand a month. The problem is not going away it is actually increasing and as the equipment becomes more sophisticated so will the tactics drone pilots will use to fly their drones in places they should not. At a basic level, some drone pilots are using tape to cover up their vehicle lights so that it makes them difficult to see during operations. This is one of the most basic attempts to circumvent detection, the many levels of tactics increase with more determined violators who fly in secure locations such as prisons.
For asset owners that want to protect their investments, there are over 23 different federal criminal codes violated depending on the specific usage of the CUAS equipment. Some companies have determined that paying a fine or being charged is worth the risk to protecting their investment and without an agency actively enforcing the laws there is little recourse. They are also willing to break the law because there are no other options for them. We should create policies now and not wait until there is a national emergency and we play catch up. Where should law-abiding asset owners turn?
CUAS equipment as it stands today can loosely be grouped into two different categories military grade and garage grade. With all equipment, there is good and bad qualities as we are going to discuss. Military grade equipment is the best although not perfect defense, however military grade equipment is expensive. Some CUAS equipment costs +$10 million and more, most civil asset owners cannot afford to purchase $10 million in equipment and it is hard for management to be persuaded to buy this equipment without direct evidence of the potential threats they can face. Defense contractors are having a difficult time selling equipment to civilians at this price point and find it difficult to convince them to change their minds without problems. Military equipment also doesn’t address the problem of mitigation without damaging the drone and having debris fall from the sky which could potentially create more damage or hurt innocent people on the ground.
Garage grade equipment represents most of the manufacturers with exception to a few companies. It is considered garage and named that because the equipment was created by a startup in a garage or workshop environment and not a large corporation or business. Garage equipment has usually not been field tested to a large degree, most of the complaints from garage equipment are the bugs in the software, no situational awareness, updating problems, and the equipment isn’t durable enough for the operators demands they are putting on the equipment. Since the equipment is relatively new from testing to field use most of the problems that come from initial usage have not been addressed. This equipment while drastically lower in price than military equipment still comes with a $200k – $1 million price tag. Clients paying this for the equipment expect the equipment to work near flawlessly and this is just not the case. While hearing from warfighters using garage equipment in theater there were a host of problems such as databases being wiped out from an update, simple failure to detect and mitigate and companies promising a lot more than they can deliver. It is a shame that over marketing the equipment has put a dark cloud over the industry with false promises. Also, many of the garage grade equipment companies lure the clients in by not explaining the illegal nature of using the equipment which is dishonest.
Jamming is illegal and becoming a problem within the CUAS industry, companies who want to operate CUAS equipment do not understand the dangers of using jamming equipment. Some companies are also being told that you can use jamming equipment legally and that the signal is a precise beam that targets the drone directly. This is false, using a jammer to down a drone presents problems to the surrounding environment such as opening a garage door, knocking out communication signals, resetting equipment for power companies, airport navigation aids, Wi-Fi, and 5G communications. The FCC has made it clear that its mission is to provide a clear signal with no impeding signals and that the specific bands that have been allocated in some cases are protected by companies who have bought the frequency bands for their use. When using a jammer that not only impedes on signals, it creates a dangerous precedent undoing decades of work to keep jammers out of the publics use. Basically, the FCC will never allow a jammer to be used in the US. To date the number of times that a jammer has legally been used is less than a handful of times and for very specific and classified reasons. A SWAT team was once authorized usage and a host of problems incurred because of the usage. The FCC learned its lesson and is very cautious moving forward. In South America jammers are being used by the cartels to down drones and have already created problems at airports, with more wide scale usage there will be more problems with aircraft and at airports. Soon airports will be reported and lose their charter to host American aircraft. Once the loss of revenue takes place then companies will get the message that jammers do more harm than good.
A problem that not many people are discussing is the liability in the event of using CUAS equipment. The SAFETY Act and NDAA protect DoD and DoE solely for the protection of those who are using CUAS equipment in a terrorist attack. The problem is knowing if it is a terrorist threat or not when choosing to use the mitigation portion of the equipment. The duration of an event usually lasts less than a minute, so you would have to be able to make the choice fairly quickly. Details CUAS operators would look for to determine if it were a threat would be the payload, vehicle equipment, flight path, and direction of flight. Without giving too much away we can say that every second counts and that there are other factors to determine if the vehicle presents a threat or not. We may actually never know if it is a terrorist until it is too late. The go no go situation presents a problem it is like having your hands tied while you witness a tragedy unfold. Another scenario is that the operator uses the equipment against just a weekend drone operator who is shooting video and unaware they are breaking the law. The drone is downed and crashes into the asset causing further damage, who would be liable? This is why tracking and ID is so important, several levels of assessment can be reviewed quickly to determine the threat level, however there is no magic bullet or an all in one solution that will encompass all the scenarios or problems presented.
An interesting comparison for law makers and legislators on the subject of liability is that the NDAA was broadened without much push back from the law makers or legislators. The CUAS Coalition helped to expand usage and insert language for CUAS operations domestically for the military on bases who were given permission to shoot down rogue drones. The property owners that live next to a military base have the same liability if you were a property owner next to a prison who wanted to shoot down rogue drones. They are wanting the same protections, but it is interesting from a safety standpoint that the same amount of liability is incurred at both locations. The only problem is one location is legal and the other one isn’t, this troubling and puzzling.
What to Do?
When laws and regulations do not agree with an industry that is when an effort to change the laws should take place. One good way to do this is for the industry to ban together and present sensible changes to the laws and join our coalition. The CUAS Coalition was created to change the laws surrounding CUAS and to give asset owners the ability to protect their airspace from rogue pilots and also those who are threats that wish to do harm to others. Some of the activities like data collection, surveillance, hacking, and espionage are some of the issues that the industry is trying to protect themselves from. Presently the CUAS Coalition has gone to Capitol Hill over 70 times on the issue of CUAS for civil defense. The Coalition has had a lot of support on Capitol Hill, but the main problem is changing the many laws connected to CUAS usage. Everyone agrees that something should be done, however law makers get uneasy when changing so many laws at once. For CUAS equipment to be legal with a blanket exemption or outright new laws created it would need to pass 4 separate committees in the House and 3 committees in the Senate. It is very remarkable for just one committee to vote in favor of changing a law and we are asking for more than 23 laws to be changed or exempted from. This will be a long fight and an uphill battle, manufacturers, asset owners and private security firms should be the most interested in changing the laws, because they can’t use or sell equipment legally until the laws are changed. One way that the industry would change and at lightening speeds would be from a terrorist event using a drone for harm. Those in the industry see the government acting in a reactive way to that response instead of proactive. The longer we wait to protect the assets from aerial threats the better counter techniques and tactics the nefarious pilots could develop to prevent them from being stopped. If the laws were changed then rogue drones would be less likely to succeed in a flight in a prohibited area. There are some places that drones should not fly. The only way to prevent this is through education and good CUAS equipment.