Drone threatNo technologies currently available to track, disable small drones
Monday’s drone incident on the White House lawn exposed a security gap that Secret Service and counterterrorism officials have been studying for years, but for which they have yet to develop a solution. Four days before the incident, lawmakers examining White House security protocols in response to a series of intrusions, were warned by a panel of experts that the Secret Service’s inability to identify and disable drones remained a top vulnerability, according to people with knowledge of the discussions.Security experts say proposals for a higher fence around the White House, together with increased surveillance and environmental sensors, are not enough to easily to identify and disable a drone before it lands.
Monday’s drone incident on the White House lawn exposed a security gap that Secret Service and counterterrorism officials have been studying for years, but for which they have yet to develop a solution.
Four days before the incident, lawmakers examining White House security protocols in response to a series of intrusions, were warned by a panel of experts that the Secret Service’s inability to identify and disable drones remained a top vulnerability, according to people with knowledge of the discussions. The “quadcopter” drone flew over the south grounds of the White House around 3 a.m. without triggering any alarms, but was spotted by a Secret Service officer. The device then crashed, prompting a lockdown of the premises until agents determined the area to be safe.
At about 9 a.m., a man called authorities to report that he had mistakenly flew and crashed the drone into the White House.
DHS and Secret Service officials have long studied how attackers could use drones to harm potential targets, including nuclear power plants and military bases. TheWashington Post reports that the Monday incident is not the first time a drone had violated the airspace surrounding the White House or the Capitol. According to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) records, an unidentified man was arrested on 19 August 2014 after he crashed a drone into a tree in Freedom Plaza, just east of the White House. On 3 July, Secret Service detained a person caught flying a quadcopter about a block from the White House grounds.
Would be terrorists have also planned attacks using drones. In 2012, a Massachusetts man was sentenced to seventeen years in prison after he pled guilty to planning an attack on the Capitol and the Pentagon with drones carrying plastic explosives.
Security experts say proposals for a higher fence around the White House, together with increased surveillance and environmental sensors, are not enough easily to identify and disable a drone before it lands. Most personal drones are too small to appear on radar, and they lack electronic transmitters that broadcast their location. In addition, federal law prohibits the use of devices that could jam or interfere with the GPS signals that drones and many other electronic devices rely on for navigation.
The Post notes that even if a small drone flying outside the White House is identified and captured before it causes harm, security agents could have a difficult time tracking the operator. Currently, the FAA does not require noncommercial drones to be registered to their owners, and operators are not required to obtain a license.
Frederick F. Roggero, a retired Air Force major general and head of Resilient Solutions, an aviation safety and risk-management consultancy, has been in talks with government agencies about how to safely disable drones when they pose a threat to sensitive complexes. “To do something about the problem, you have to find it, you have to track it, you have to identify it and you have to decide what to do with it,” Roggero said. “But especially in an urban environment, it would be tough to detect and tough to defeat kinetically without shooting it down and causing collateral damage.”
Chairman of the House Oversight Committee, Representative Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), called Monday’s incident “deeply concerning.” “These kinds of threats are not going away,” Chaffetz said.
As drones gain popularity among hobbyists and small businesses such as real estate agencies, Congress has urged the FAA to quickly publish guidelines for operating small commercial drones. The FAA is scheduled to release its latest of such guidelines on Friday. Senator Charles Schumer (D-New York) said Monday’s incident shows how urgent guidelines and rules on drones are needed. “With the discovery of an unauthorized drone on the White House lawn, the eagle has crash-landed in Washington,” Schumer said. “There is no stronger sign that clear FAA guidelines for drones for needed.”
Current FAA rules for small personal drone operators order them to avoid manned aircraft, fly drones within sight of the pilot, stay below 400 feet in the air, and notify air-traffic control towers before flying drones within five miles of an airport. “We want people who fly model aircraft for recreation to enjoy their hobby – but to enjoy it safely,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in June when those guidelines were released. “At DOT, we often say that safety is a shared responsibility, so to help, we are providing additional information today to make sure model aircraft operators know exactly what’s expected of them.”