Following a near-collision between an F-22 stealth fighter and a civilian drone (also known as an unmanned aircraft system or “UAS”), last week a four-star U.S. Air Force (“USAF”) general requested additional authority to combat civilian drone operations threatening USAF facilities and assets. This request highlights the difficulty faced by institutions and businesses wanting to protect critical infrastructure and property while not violating federal law.
General Mike Holmes of the Air Combat Command told the Air Force Association about two incidents—in the same day—where unauthorized civilian drones entered airspace over USAF facilities and interfered with operations. In one incident, a drone nearly collided with an F-22 Raptor stealth tactical fighter jet, one of the USAF’s most advanced aircraft, costing in excess of $150 million.
According to General Holmes, the USAF needs new legal authorities to down such drones or another means to protect from unlawful incursion. He says the USAF’s only current option in such a situation is to track down the operator and have their license revoked, although he admitted “they’re hard to get at.”
According to statute, it is a federal crime to shoot down, jam, or otherwise disable any aircraft—including UAS. Also only the FAA has the authority to enforce regulations related to airspace, although it has made an effort to partner with local and state law enforcement.
Recent legislation, the FAA Extension, Safety, and Security Act of 2016, required the FAA to establish a process to allow owners and operators of critical infrastructure to apply for a “no drone zone” in the proximity of such facilities. The FAA is in the process of developing such a system. However, it does not appear that the facilities receiving such designations will have the authority to disable drones violating the protection.
As UAS usage continues to expand throughout the United States, the importance of drone defense will increase. Many companies are concerned about protecting their facilities, trade secrets, and intellectual property from corporate espionage. Individuals are concerned about privacy in their backyards. Airports are concerned about protecting commercial aviation. And the USAF is even concerned about a potentially catastrophic collision between a drone and a fighter jet.
Congress may consider including a provision on drone defense to the current legislation to reauthorize the FAA, which must be passed in the coming months.