Congress Introduces New Counter-UAS Legislation

House Bill Aims to Extend and Enhance Authorities of DHS, DOJ, and FAA to Address Growing Drone Threats

By DRONELIFE Features Editor Jim Magill

A bill introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this month would extend the authority of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) to mitigate threats from errant unmanned aerial systems, while also granting the FAA some additional counter-UAS power.

The Counter-UAS Authority Security, Safety, and Reauthorization Act, introduced in the House Homeland Security Committee, replaces the Preventing Emerging Threats Act of 2018, which was slated to expire in September. The bipartisan legislation marks the most significant effort that Congress has yet undertaken to counter the growing threats posed by drones operated in an unsafe or malicious manner near airports and other critical infrastructure, or densely crowded venues such as football stadiums.

“As drones have continued to proliferate there’s been an increased appetite for people to acquire and operate counter-UAS systems,” a congressional staffer familiar with the proposed legislation said.

In the last session of Congress, the Biden administration released a National Action Plan for counter-UAS measures, which proposed a dramatic expansion of counter-UAS authorities across the government. However, Congress balked at passing the Biden plan and instead a number of lawmakers have been working on coming up with a less far-reaching plan to address the issues of counter-UAS mitigation, without impeding the hoped-for expansion of drone traffic into the U.S. airspace system.

The proposed legislation is the work of several House committee, working cooperatively with one another.

“Counter UAS is one of those issues that crosses committee jurisdictions in the House. The Transportation Committee obviously deals with drone integration and airspace and the FAA,” the congressional aide said. “The Committee on Homeland Security deals with DHS and the Committee on the Judiciary deals with the Department of Justice.

The Counter-UAS bill would extend existing DHS and DOJ counter-UAS authorities through October 1, 2028. According to a statement by Republican members of the House Homeland Security Committee, among other measures, the legislation will:

  • Clarify and improve coordination requirements among DHS, DOJ, the Department of Transportation (DOT), and the FAA.
  • Ensure that information gathered by approved counter-UAS systems is not misused or retained for extended periods of time.
  • Prohibit DHS and DOJ from using or authorizing the use of counter-UAS systems that have been manufactured by certain foreign (notably Chinese) companies.
  • Provide Homeland Security Investigations, the principal investigative component of DHS, with counter-UAS authority; and provide DHS with counter-UAS authority to protect public airports.
  • Allow DHS to authorize the acquisition, deployment, and operation of counter-UAS systems by owners or operators of covered sites and critical infrastructure.
  • Require DHS to establish a counter-UAS mitigation pilot program, designating five pilot sites under which selected state law enforcement agencies may operate approved counter-UAS mitigation systems.
  • Require the FAA, in coordination with DHS and DOJ, to develop a plan for counter-UAS operations at airports.

Under current law under certain conditions, the DHS has the authority to interdict and bring down drones that are operating in an unsafe manner. The proposed legislation extends that power to the FAA under limited circumstances. According to the bill, the FAA administrator may take actions to “detect or mitigate a credible threat” to the safe and efficient operation of the national airspace system.

The FAA is also charged with evaluating the potential adverse impacts of counter-UAS detection or mitigation systems “with safe airport operations, aircraft navigation, air traffic services, or the safe and efficient operation of the national airspace system,” according to the bill.

“In general, the bill tries to let us wrap our arms around the existing authorities to ensure that they’re being managed and used properly, and then it turns to look at how do we roll out UAS-detection technologies,” the staffer said.

Waiver to intercept signals

One problem in implementing existing counter-UAS technology is that its use involves the interception of radio signals, a potential crime. The Counter-UAS bill contains a waiver that allows state and local law enforcement agencies, in partnership with critical infrastructure facility and stadium owners, to enter into agreements to operate UAS-detection systems without running afoul of laws such as the federal Wiretap Act.

Another major concern involving the use of counter-UAS systems is ensuring the privacy of the data collected by those systems. The implementation of the FAA’s Remote ID system for drones is expected to help propel counter-UAS efforts, by providing much of the data sought by the operators of those systems – such as the identity of the aircraft’s operator, its registration number and the direction in which it’s flying.

Under the bill’s stringent data-retention provisions, data collected on drone operations by counter-UAS systems is required to be erased after a certain time period, unless it’s being used in the ongoing prosecution of a crime.

Under a pilot program, to test the expansion of counter-UAS authority to state and local jurisdictions, state law enforcement agencies will apply for certain locations to be selected as one of five test sites. These sites will typically be those that in the past have qualified for FAA temporary flight restrictions, such as NFL football stadiums.

With the successful operation of the initial test sites, the pilot program is expected to be expanded to additional sites, the congressional staffer said.

Like other drone-related legislation currently pending before Congress, the bill is targeted to exclude the introduction of Chinese technology, although it does not mention China specifically. The legislation is written to prohibit “the inclusion of counter-UAS systems manufactured by certain foreign enterprises,” and goes on to describe those enterprises to let everyone know what country the provision is aimed at.

While the legislation has a long way to go before becoming law – it must be passed by both Houses of Congress and signed by the President – proponents are hopeful that it will be enacted … eventually.

“I think something like this will pass,” the congressional staffer said. “Whether it’s in this congress, I don’t know. But this is an area where a lot of folks have been working on a lot of proposals for a long time. And so, at some point, everyone will coalesce around some version.”

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Jim Magill is a Houston-based writer with almost a quarter-century of experience covering technical and economic developments in the oil and gas industry. After retiring in December 2019 as a senior editor with S&P Global Platts, Jim began writing about emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, robots and drones, and the ways in which they’re contributing to our society. In addition to DroneLife, Jim is a contributor to and his work has appeared in the Houston Chronicle, U.S. News & World Report, and Unmanned Systems, a publication of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.


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