Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), commonly known as drones, have soared in popularity over the past few years. With nearly 1 million commercial and recreational drones currently registered in the U.S., the futuristic flying machines now represent both major opportunities and potential dangers for security operations. Thus, the security industry continues to develop UAS and counter-UAS solutions.
In the “Now & Next” interview below, three industry experts discuss the present and future of drones.
What are some main benefits drones offer security operations? (Now)
Ziemba: Drones provide security teams a fast and efficient way to get eyes in the sky. As a result, drones can help them improve incident response and investigation operations. Drones equipped with infrared cameras can quite literally save lives because they can cover so much more ground in a short time period that would be challenging or impossible for vehicles or people.
Quiroga: Automated security drone systems allow you to rapidly investigate alarms, respond to emergencies, and conduct routine aerial patrols. It’s an excellent asset for putting a daytime/nighttime camera in the sky anywhere you need it, whenever you need it, to get real-time intelligence streamed to a security operations center.
In a nutshell, it’s an automated and/or point-and-click-controlled mobile eye-in-the-sky daytime/nighttime camera with 20x optical zoom. At a 200-foot altitude, the drone asset can see approximately 10x the area that an officer can at a 6-foot altitude (eye level). The drone also patrols 5x faster on average than a security officer, thus covering more area at a faster rate. The systems are designed to automate dull and dangerous security operations to create safer and more efficient facilities.
Dunkel: Today, the benefit of a counter-UAS (C-UAS) solution is to secure the low-altitude airspace above the line of sight of surveillance cameras and over the heads of man guarding services.
What is the biggest challenge facing widespread adoption of drones? (Now)
Quiroga: We spend most of our time focused on education. Education on what you are and aren’t legally allowed to do. Education on what the true capabilities are. Education on best practices of how these systems are used best in real-world situations. Education on the successes and learnings of other similar companies. Widespread education on these subjects is our biggest challenge to overcome in such a new and exciting sector.
Dunkel: From a C-UAS perspective, quadcopter drone technology has quickly created a dangerous gap in existing physical security solution deployments. The challenge is creating a sense of urgency to address the risk. Generally, the challenge to C-UAS adoption is education. The accelerated rate of growth in commercial and consumer drone sales increases the risk of unauthorized use and serious criminal intent. The global precedent of quadcopter drone attacks is understood but not acted upon.
Ziemba: The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) mandates that commercial drone pilots must understand the rules for safe flight, register their drone, and take a test to receive a Part 107 license. Some types of flight, such as operation over moving vehicles, require an additional waiver. Commercial operators must overcome those hurdles and also accept the risks associated with drone flight, which could result in significant liability and safety issues for their organization.
What security risks are currently posed by drones and may require counter-UAS solutions? (Now)
Ziemba: Drones flown by clueless, careless, or criminal pilots pose safety risks at critical infrastructure, stadiums, and airports, to name a few. A drone weighing 5 to 55 pounds falling from hundreds of feet in the air can injure or kill someone and cause property damage. Furthermore, Ukraine’s military has demonstrated just how easily and effectively drones can be used to conduct surveillance and deliver a harmful payload.
Quiroga: We led a counter-UAS case study for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Critical Infrastructure Protection Advisory Committee. In just 60 days of surveilling Port of Miami airspace, we detected 4,478 drone flights. The risks from these types of drone operations are in two categories: clueless/careless and criminal. The clueless/careless risks revolve mainly around accidents or unwanted surveillance. The criminal threats range from espionage to targeted dropping of explosive ordinance, chemical weapons, or contraband within prisons.
Additionally, these systems are being used today in the Ukraine war. Here’s a quote from a Forbes article: “An octocopter probably can’t replace a TB-2, but it can complement the bigger drone—and at a much lower cost. Where Kyiv pays millions of dollars to acquire a TB-2, it can buy an octocopter for $10,000. Ukrainian volunteers also produce their own drones.”
Dunkel: Today drones are used to drop illegal contraband into prisons, disrupt and destroy components at critical infrastructure facilities, halt operations at airports, and carry devices to breach Wi-Fi communication networks for espionage operations.
ISIS has used quadcopter drones to drop grenades on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan for a decade. The president of Venezuela escaped an assassination attempt from two drones in 2018. Mexican drug cartels regularly use quadcopter drones to smuggle drugs, kill adversaries, and track and attack police patrols. The risks do not require a “failure of imagination.”
What key steps would you like the government to take to spur drone safety? (Next)
Quiroga: The FAA is doing a lot right now. As a result, there’s been significant movement in the industry over the last year. They introduced the BEYOND program early on and have established a few separate aviation rulemaking committees, including the recent beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) one.
If I had to provide a recommendation on additional key steps the FAA could take, I’d recommend the continuation of industry standards as a means of compliance, more engagement from the Flight Standards District Office, and a publication of best practices on how other companies have been successful getting various waivers.
Ziemba: The government’s Advisory on the Application of Federal Laws to the Acquisition and Use of Technology to Detect and Mitigate Unmanned Aircraft Systems helps organizations know the types of C-UAS technologies they can and cannot use to protect their people and property while taking into account air safety, national security, and privacy laws.
C-UAS purchasers will have clarity on allowable C-UAS systems once the U.S. Department of Homeland Security completes their commitment to evaluate C-UAS systems in two categories of those that: 1) do not implicate federal criminal laws relating to surveillance, recording or decoding signaling information, accessing or damaging computers, or interference with an aircraft, and 2) are used operationally by the U.S. Departments of Defense, Energy, Justice, or Homeland Security and that have been evaluated and approved for use at specific locations and use cases within the United States or its territories in accordance with the agencies’ policy implementation of their C-UAS statutory authorities.
Dunkel: Governments globally will regulate commercial drone use, traffic patterns, and police authorized versus unauthorized airspace activity (e.g., Amazon deliveries). Legal issues surrounding unauthorized drone use and counter-drone responses must be clearly communicated to the public. Where are drones acceptable (safe) and where are they unacceptable to operate? When is it legal to disable or destroy an unauthorized drone posing a clear danger to an individual or the public? What are the legal definitions and penalties if broken?
Is it possible to have the right balance between drone market expansion and effective counter-UAS? (Next)
Dunkel: Certainly. Today Goldman Sachs forecasts the total drone market (commercial and government) at $100 billion with compound annual growth of over 66%. The C-UAS market is projected to be $8 billion by 2028 and average 30% CAGR over the next 6 years. Compare these two growth markets to the 6% CAGR of the global physical security industry. The commercial and C-UAS drone markets generally are where you want to position yourself and your company for the future.
Quiroga: The drone market and effective counter-UAS should go hand-in-hand. Through initiatives like Remote ID, we can securely identify, like a car license plate, the good drones from the bad ones. Counter-UAS should simply be the highway patroller of the sky and let the other trusted systems operate freely. For domestic or commercial use, counter-UAS is eventually just going to roll up into Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management (UTM).
Ziemba: The challenge lies in the fact that drone technology advances so rapidly that counter-UAS technology has to be agile enough to keep up, but it’s certainly possible as several effective C-UAS solutions are on the market today. C-UAS integration with emerging UAV Traffic Management Systems illustrates that no C-UAS technology will ever be a silver bullet, and airspace security relies on more than just technology. How organizations respond to the intelligence provided by a system is critical.
Do you think drones will play a major role in the security industry’s future? (Next)
Quiroga: With staffing shortages and a persistent need to detect and deter crime, I don’t see a future where drones and robotics aren’t playing a major role in security. Organizations that can effectively layer these automated robotic security assets will forever transform security operations into proactive response tools. This will allow organizations to do more (zoom in/out, daytime/nighttime cameras, increase mobility, enable prescriptive analytics, etc.) and create safer employees by sending in a robot instead of a human in the case of a dangerous situation. We would lose a robot or drone over a human any day.
Dunkel: Yes. Today drone technology is changing the very nature of warfare, and those military trends tend toward commercial adoption in physical security and law enforcement. Countermeasures will continue to be developed as threats evolve, but adjacent solutions will clearly benefit security operations in general. Quadcopter drones will maximize police patrol and cost effectively replace manned helicopters moving forward. Drones will evolve in assisting security teams with real-time situational intelligence to improve response times to save lives. The use cases are continuing to expand.
Ziemba: In the future, when drones and ground-based robotics operate without human intervention, security organizations will highly automate security patrols and responses at much less cost and lower risk than possible without them. As long as the benefits outweigh the risks, drones will continue to play an expanding and valuable role in the security industry’s future.