Countering Rogue Drones 101: Part 1 - The Basics

Drones are nearly everywhere today. The Federal Aviation Administration said that it had registered 1.1 million drones as of mid-May.[1] That includes nearly 1,000,000 operated by hobbyists and 197,000 by commercial and public entities. They range in size from as small 250 grams to 55 pounds. We are getting very close to saying that drones are ubiquitous in our country.

But just because drones are seemingly everywhere doesn’t mean they should be—or even can be. We intuitively know there are places and circumstances where operating a drone violates the law, personal privacy, or—if nothing else—common sense. Two prime examples include flying drones over military bases and sporting events like the Super Bowl.

So, what do you do when you want to stop a drone in its flight path?

The first step: ask yourself (and preferably your attorney) if you have the legal authority to interfere with that aircraft. A drone is an aircraft according to federal law—and that’s a big deal. It also makes the odds low that you have the legal authority to do anything, so if you’re looking to keep your legal bill low, don’t bother counsel.

There are some cases where you do have the authority to act. If you find yourself in one, the next step should be evaluating whether the technology you plan to use is allowed by the law. Here again, the odds are against you. For example, firearms laws in most jurisdictions likely prohibit you from shooting down a drone with your perfectly legal gun. Likewise, jamming technologies run afoul of Federal Communications Commission regulations. 

Where does that leave us? Basically, everybody knows there is a problem, but our legal and regulatory systems don’t permit counter-drone actions. Congress has its eye on the problem and is working on legislation to at least allow the federal government—the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice—to have the legal authority necessary to test and use counter-drone technologies.

Beyond this, it’s safe to say there will be a long wait before the numerous and complex legal issues will be addressed at the state and local levels. Among the must-dos: establish lines between federal and state jurisdiction when it comes to actions against devices essentially considered aircraft, protecting manned aircraft from counter-drone activities, and protecting the radio spectrum from counter-drone interference.

The good news is, we’re not starting at square one. The military has gained deep experience in counter-drone operations during recent conflicts, protecting our troops from drone threats.

While it will take some time for the civil side to begin adopting counter-drone technologies, we already have a pretty good idea of what paths to take. They fall into six basic categories: education, basic perimeter protection, kinetic weapons, electronic jamming focused on the command and control systems of a drone, denial/spoofing of GPS signals, and stealth coatings to mask critical infrastructure from drone sensors. In the articles ahead, we’ll take a closer look at each.