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Build a National Counter-Drone Network

Defensive drones stationed at airports and other likely points of attack could be teleoperated from one or more central facilities.

In December 2018, two drones entered the airspace over London’s Gatwick airport from different directions. Because so little could be discerned — Were they sent with hostile intent? Were they equipped with weapons? Were more drones on the way? — authorities ultimately grounded thousands of flights for 30 hours. Two years later, the perpetrators remain at large.

Meanwhile, the U.S. ability to stop this kind of attack on American soil remains “limited,” according to a recent report from the inspector general of the Homeland Security Department. 

It’s not hard to see why. A successful response means detecting incoming aircraft, determining hostile intent, choosing a response, deploying an interceptor, and disabling the threat. The fact that the engagement might take place over private land or in several law-enforcement jurisdictions only makes things tougher. It’s such a thorny problem that DHS has instructed its various components to take no counter-drone action until its Office of Policy comes up with a unified approach.

But the lack of current policy means there is a window to explore new ideas. Here’s one: create a system of anti-drone drones installed at airports and other vulnerable locations around the country, remotely operated by one or more centers.   

Why drone attacks are hard to stop

Counter-drone response must be rapid. Relatively inexpensive drones can be sent up to 100 mph towards a sensitive facility or airport. Detection measures can help, but may only stretch response time to a few minutes. 

Attacks on private-sector facilities make defense even more complex. Because federal law sees anti-drone interference as legally equivalent to interfering with a manned aircraft, only federal authorities may operate counter-drone systems. So a company official beset by hostile drones must inform law enforcement, who must commit resources to the response, arrive upon the scene, assess the situation, and make a decision to respond themselves. Doing all of that in a few minutes is plausible, but seems unlikely to succeed in a serious attack. 

(Nor is the threat of punishment much deterrence; in a well-planned attack, the perpetrator is likely to escape. The drones may come from a hilly range, across a body of water, or from a swamp — environments that may obscure launch points and cover the perpetrator’s flight. And drones with basic wayfinding gear can travel autonomously to their targets, allowing the perpetrators a miles-long head start before the bombs fall.) 

And any successful defensive approach must be able to adapt to rapidly changing technology, from jam-resistant onboard control systems to the ground-based drones used by Yemen’s Houthi rebels to haul explosive 30-pound payloads.

National counter-drone network 

If teleoperated defensive drones were stationed on-site at high risk areas — think on the border, inside airports, atop container cranes, on the White House lawn — authorities could respond immediately — both with counter-drones to disable the incoming aircraft and with surveillance drones that might be able to spot an escaping perpetrator. In an ideal world, a law enforcement officer could launch an on-site drone from her desktop control system. Even if she is not successful in every effort, she may buy time for other law enforcement officials en route to the site. Because the teleoperated drone would reduce law enforcement response time, it may also serve to deter attacks before they occur. 

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The network of drones could be operated from a single federal facility. Because drone events are relatively infrequent, a single operator could manage numerous on-site drones. In a world in which one drone attack event occurs per year, one operator could plausibly operate an entire national network. Although delay in data-transfer is likely to be a limiter, the emergence of 5G wireless may reduce its impact. In Australia, teleoperated drones were reportedly flown over 5G networks last year. Of course, the teleoperated drones would also need to be maintained on-site, but maintainers can travel from location to location to inspect, repair, and ensure the operability of numerous systems.

This approach is scalable. As the threats grow, more drones can be deployed to more high-risk areas. As single drones give rise to multiple drones and true drone swarms, more teleoperated drones can be deployed to each site. Conversely, as the threat environment diminishes and adversaries adopt other technologies, teleoperated drones can be removed from lower-risk areas, excess operators and maintainers can be stood-down, and overall costs can be reduced. Given the budget challenges identified by the DHS report, a lower-cost approach is likely to be necessary in the short term. 

The approach is also adaptable. If intelligence indicates that, say, an oil refinery is at imminent risk, defensive drones can be moved from, say, a nearby nuclear plant. (Teleoperators would not need to move at all.) If adversaries start using drones resistant to current counter-drone measures, new defensive payloads can be introduced. 

A counter-drone network would also be useful in non-drone events. Any teleoperated drone must have sensors to locate the hostile drone. Those same sensors offer improved situational awareness generally. Should a terrorist cell mount a ground attack on a high-risk facility, the drone could provide aerial surveillance of the cell’s movements and activities to inform and guide response.

To build a network, the United States should:

• Establish a DHS Counter-Drone Organization, comprised of the various counter-drone offices and strategies that currently exist in various DHS components. 

• Federally fund the development of teleoperated drones, sensors, and interceptors. 

• Determine what improvements might be needed to support drone teleoperation over commercial networks. If data can be transferred with sufficiently low latency only from a few miles away, an integrated national network will not be possible in the short term. Instead, federal authorities may need to consider regional or local control. Conversely, if sufficiently low latency data can be transferred across the country, a nation-wide federal network integrated in a single facility is plausible. 

Of course, all of this requires the DHS Office of Policy to appropriately fund the Department’s counter-drone work. The drone wave that has threatened U.S. forces in the Middle East, might not yet have struck the homeland, but the low-cost nature of drones means the wave is off our shores. The United States should develop a nation-wide network now to reduce the threat and bolster American security.

All views expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of any current or former employers, funders, or affiliates.