White House Workshop Predicts Deadly Drone Attacks in US

The FAA is finalizing rules for the use of commercial and hobby drones and hopes to get them in place before Christmas. (US Arctic Research Commission photo)
The FAA is finalizing rules for the use of commercial and hobby drones and hopes to get them in place before Christmas. (US Arctic Research Commission photo)

The White House is taking steps to rein in commercial drone flights over U.S. airspace amid concerns that the tiny, flying machines will be used as weapons in a terrorist attack.

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Workshop on Drones and the Future of Aviation recently brought together representatives from industry, government and academia to find solutions for regulating and potentially tracking the thousands of recreational unmanned aerial systems, or UAS, in use across the country.

One working group discussed the role government and industry should play to encourage UAS users to "adopt specific standards" to avoid the need for significant regulatory burden, but "everyone agreed that the need for counter-UAS security measures is significant and urgent," according to the Oct. 12 report of the proceedings.

"Domestically, the United States has been spared a deadly UAS attack. But participants agreed that it is only a matter of time before one is carried out," the report states. "With 'the clock ticking,' the U.S. has to establish the technology to prevent it or to provide law enforcement with the tools to respond."

Workshop organizers announced President Barack Obama has pledged $35 million over five years for unmanned aircraft research through the National Science Foundation.

Booby-Trapped Drones

The Association for Unmanned Vehicles Systems International released the workshop proceedings Wednesday as news reports emerged that a booby-trapped drone killed two Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and badly wounded two French soldiers battling militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

The drone exploded when the Peshmerga tried to pick it up after it had crashed to the ground, according to the BBC. The incident happened Oct. 2, north of the ISIS-held city of Mosul.

ISIS militants are said to have tried to use drones to launch attacks at least two other times in the past month, the BBC reported.

UAS, commonly known as drones, have become an effective, reliable tool to help commanders gather battlefield intelligence. They have also exploded on the commercial market, flooding toy stores and hobby shops with inexpensive, multi-propeller drones.

They're small, extremely quiet and fly at high altitudes, making them difficult to detect.

Earlier this month, the commander of U.S. Army Europe said he wants anti-drone weapons to counter potential threats from Russian forces.

Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges said he would welcome any number of systems to do the job, from newer non-kinetic technologies like Batelle's DroneDefender to older, Cold War-era equipment such as the Avenger, a Humvee equipped with a launcher housing eight FIM-92 Stinger missiles, as well as the German-made Gepard, a twin-33mm cannon mounted on a Leopard tank.

An Effective Defense

So far, finding an effective defense against drones has been no easy task. Conventional small arms, everything from shotguns to machine guns, failed to bring down drones armed with explosives in an early evaluation in January 2015, according to an Army source not authorized to speak on the effort.

Hodges said officials at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, are evaluating non-kinetic technologies. While he didn't specify the name of any new products, Army officials have tested Battelle's DroneDefender, a shoulder-fired weapon that zaps drones with radio waves and, when paired with an Israeli-made radar, can detect unmanned aerial vehicles from several kilometers away.

Countering a UAS threat in the United States could be even more of a challenge, participants of the White House workshop maintain. None of the participants in the workshop was named in the report.

One representative talked about how the days of the Pentagon's total air dominance may be over soon. "I've visited DoD facilities where we have spent literally a fortune putting up a big fence [that a] toy can go over," he said.

Another attendee said most people think that because there hasn't been a major, lethal attack, a danger doesn't exist

"They'll say, 'How many hundreds of thousands have flown, and who has been hurt by them?' " the attendee said. "They are missing the point that it's not a matter of 'it hasn't happened.' It's 'when it will happen.' "

A year ago, a DJI Phantom evaded Secret Service radar and landed on the White House lawn.

The Federal Aviation Administration instituted a no drone zone around the nation's capital in July with a 15-mile no-fly zone around Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, just south of Washington.

It expanded the no-drone zone in late December to a 30-mile radius, encircling much of southern and central Maryland and northern Virginia.

Even low-tech beacons or designated flight plans could help law enforcement with the small percentage of bad actors, the report states.

"The whole reason GPS is even in your smartphone today is because of an FCC rule that said 'Hey. We've got to be able to find where the phone is,' " a participant said.

One challenge will be to convince the public to self-regulate, the report states. The problem is that a culture of noncompliance exists among recreational users, workshop participants maintain, adding that thousands of commercial drone flights are observed in the vicinity of large hub airports on a regular basis.

If the government could define quality standards and lay out legal parameters, industry could quickly and inexpensively begin to produce solutions, the report states.

"I would propose that there is technology out there today that's mature enough to deal with the vast majority of problems we see today, but we can't do it because we are not sure it's legal," one industry representative said.

-- Matthew Cox can be reached at matthew.cox@military.com.

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