A proposed bill in the US Senate would give the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice broad capabilities to take direct action against any drone perceived to be a threat – superseding any laws to the contrary.
Senate Bill 2836, sponsored by Sen. Ron Johnson (R, WI) seeks to allow the Department of Homeland Security to detect, identify, monitor, and track drones it considers threatening, as well as potentially “Disrupt control of the unmanned aircraft system or unmanned aircraft, without prior consent, including by disabling the unmanned aircraft system or unmanned aircraft.” Sen. Johnson opened the June 6th Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs hearing on SB.2836 with a YouTube video posted by the Islamic State (ISIS) that appears to show a commercially available consumer drone modified to drop an explosive device on a target below.
“ISIS is out on YouTube bragging about their capabilities,” said Sen. Johnson. “[The video] looks like something out of the U.S. Defense Department – it’s from ISIS, part of their propaganda…It’s frightening.”
“We have no authority to deal with those drones,” Johnson said. Presumably referring to the federal laws prohibiting the destruction of an aircraft which include drones. However, it’s important to note for the record that while severely limited, the Department of Defense already has the authority to exercise deadly force against even manned aircraft that violate certain flight restrictions, such as the Washington DC FRZ. Additionally, the DOD already has the authority to take direct action against drones that pose a threat to national security in the vicinity of military installations.
On June 5th The Commercial Drone Alliance released commentary in advance of the June 6th hearing on SB. 2836. Specifically stating concerns about the broadness of scope and the potential for interference with authorized done operations, and urged DHS to leverage the system of background checks for prospective UAS pilots, a process that already exists.
Some have expressed concerns as to why a broad exemption is necessary instead of individual exemptions to specific laws such as those prohibiting the destruction of aircraft. Hayley Chang, Deputy General Counsel for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security indicates that the breadth of scope “is the heart of the issue – without that clarity officers will find their hands tied.” She indicated that any additional, “tweaks” to the bill would not provide law enforcement with categorical and understandable authority needed to exercise action. Chang thanked the committee for “taking this straightforward approach,” and pointed out that the rapidly changing industry and technology environment made it necessary. “Things that were not illegal yesterday will be illegal tomorrow” without a broad scope to the proposed law,
While I think that this bill represents a necessary step in the right direction to provide federal authorities the ability to design, test, and implement interdiction strategies for unauthorized drones, the question remains as to how these strategies are implemented without causing a greater hazard to the national airspace system. Proposed destructive force measures are likely to result in raining lead and drone parts on the sensitive targets this law intends to protect. While reasonable interdiction strategies should be developed, there’s a strong argument to be made against the adoption of battlefield tactics in response to domestic threats. While I’m of the opinion that the breadth of scope creates more questions than answers, SB. 2836 represents a fundamental sea change as to drone threats will be mitigated in the future.
*Further information about SB. 2836 will be posted as it develops.