How Legal Is Anti-Drone Technology?

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Notice: This is not legal advice. Consult with an attorney.

The same characteristics that have made drones valuable tools in several industries have also made them quite the nuisance when put in the wrong hands. There have already been cases of drones being used to smuggle contraband or to spy on people illegally. We barely even need to mention the incidences of drones flying where they are not supposed to be, such as in commercial airports and on the lawn of the White House.

As these problems abound, technology to counter drones also continues to be developed. Just how effective is anti-drone technology? Who can use anti-drone devices legally?

Examples of anti-drone technology

Many of you may have heard of devices that are designed to jam the signal that drones receive from their ground stations, effectively making them impossible to control and grounding them. While this is the most common type of anti-drone technology that has been developed, there are also methods that are a little more old-fashioned.

Signal jamming

UPair-Drone-One-Plus-w-RTH

The most common way to stop a renegade drone in its tracks is to interfere with its communication with its ground station or controller. This can be done either by stationary signal jamming stations or a “gun” that shoots waves of electromagnetic interference. The objective of this approach is to either ground the drone or to force it to activate its return to home (RTH) to aid in identifying the erring pilot.

In the past, the major limitation of signal jamming guns is that they were often bulky and difficult to deploy. This may no longer be the case in the near future. Just recently, a British company called Drone Defence announced the launch of their product – the E1000MP, a drone signal jammer that weighs only 3.5 kg.

However, signal jammers remain a heavily regulated technology. As we shall see later, a signal jammer to deter drones may not be easily accessible or usable to just anyone.

Mechanical snaring

A more back-to-basics approach to catching renegade drones is to simply ensnare them, typically by shooting a net at them. The DroneCatcher by Dutch company Delft Dynamics and the Skywall 100 developed by a team of UK-based engineers is based on this concept.

These devices aren’t just crude net-throwing systems, either. The DroneCatcher, ironically, is also a drone that is designed to track and run after renegade drones. It has a targeting feature that allows it to identify a drone and fly after it automatically before shooting out a net at a maximum of 20 meters away.

The SkyWall 100 takes a more ground-based approach to the problem. It’s basically a pneumatically powered shoulder-mounted bazooka that fires a net up to 100 meters away. It’s also not as crude as it sounds as it comes with an AI-assisted targeting system – crucial if you’re trying to catch something as quick and agile as a drone.

When ensnared, a drone will almost certainly immediately crash as its propellers stop spinning. While this will likely damage the drone, the benefit of this approach is that the drone can be easily recovered as used as evidence.

Shooting them out of the sky

The most aggressive way to deal with drones is to simply shoot at them to cause them to crash. This approach does not even need a fancy device, as there have already been several cases of drones being shot by rifles in the good old USA.

The defense company Lockheed Marting takes a more refined stab at this strategy with the ATHENA, which is shorthand for Advanced Test High Energy Asset. It’s essentially a ground-based laser system with a minimum 60 kW power that can almost instantly burn airborne drones.

It’s easy to see how this anti-drone strategy is dangerous and needs to be heavily regulated. Weapons with this much destructive power can damage or injure just about anything aside from drones.

Hijacking their controls

Airport

Another strategy in ensnaring renegade drones is to simply wrest control of them away from their operators. This is the objective of the Maldrone, a specially designed malware meant to hijack different types of drones. Using wireless signals, the malware is secretly installed on the drone and provides both control and surveillance to the hacker.

This is probably the least destructive way of controlling an errant drone. If a hacker can successfully wrest control of a drone, it can be recovered without having to crash the drone and causing property damage. However, this is also likely the approach with the lowest margins of success.

As drone-related felonies and crimes become more common, the development of anti-drone technology is close to becoming an industry of significant size. Based on a survey conducted back in 2018, there were already 235 commercially available counter-drone products. Just how far can this technology go? Should drone pilots be concerned?

Potential issues with anti-drone technology

In case you have not noticed, the US federal government and the FAA take national airspace security very seriously. The US national airspace continues to be one of the safest in the world through the help of comprehensive, well-thought policies. For this reason, the FAA has not exactly been eager to allow the use of counter-drone technology.

In a letter issued by the FAA back in mid-2018, they published a list of their findings on a study made on counter-drone technology. This report highlighted some of the major flaws in currently existing anti-drone technology, especially as it pertains to overall airspace safety.

  • Counter-drone technology needs to be developed such that they do not interfere with safe airport and air traffic control operations. This becomes difficult when the anti-drone device uses a method emitting electromagnetic interference in an attempt to jam the signal of a drone. To be brief, any attempts to jam drone signals could also endanger manned aircraft as well as the communication, surveillance, and navigation capabilities of air traffic control.
  • In most cases, counter-drone technology aims to take a drone down. This will not always be a controlled landing, especially if the drone gets damaged by the counter-drone measure taken. An uncontrolled drone landing will always present the risk of collateral damage. Whether it be an injury to people or damage to private property, taking a drone down may not be worth the potential consequences.

These are only some of the more practical consequences of unauthorized handling of anti-drone technology. When it comes to the legal side of things, there’s an entire laundry list of laws that the use of such as a device may violate.

Laws that the use of anti-drone technology can violate

Right now, it should already be clear why anti-drone technology continues to be heavily regulated. Aside from a few federal agencies, the use of these counter-drone devices is prohibited. Those who yield them improperly may be charged according to this entire labyrinth of laws.

Anti-radio jamming laws

There are several laws in place that prevent any attempts to interfere with standard radio communications. Jamming of drone signal falls under this umbrella. Just to demonstrate how complicated this matter is, here is a partial list of laws on this topic:

  • 47 USC Section 333 – Prohibits the willful or malicious interference with the radio communications of any station licensed or authorized under the Act
  • 47 USC Section 203 (b) – Prohibits the manufacture, importation, marketing, sale, or operation of unlicensed jammers within the United States
  • 47 USC Section 301 – Requires persons operating or using radio transmitters to be licensed or authorized under the Commission’s rules
  • 18 USC Section 1362 – Prohibits willful or malicious interference to US government communication
  • 18 USC Section 1367 (a) – Prohibits intentional or malicious interference to satellite communication
  • 47 CFR Section 2.803 of the FCC – Prohibits the manufacture, importation, marketing, sale, or operations of these devices within the United States with certain limited exceptions

This list of law stresses how difficult it is not just to use these anti-drone devices, but also to manufacture, import, and sell them. This pretty much eliminates the possibility of these devices ending up in civilian hands

Damaging an aircraft

As far as the FAA is concerned, a drone is a type of aircraft. This means that it is also protected by laws that protect all aircraft from being deliberately damaged. There is a provision for this under the US Criminal Code:

  • 18 USC Section 32 – “Whoever willfully sets fire to, damages, destroys, disables, or wrecks any aircraft within the special aircraft jurisdiction of the United States or any civil aircraft used, operated, or employed in interstate, overseas, or foreign air commerce shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than twenty years or both.”

Unless authorized, this law means that anyone who attempts to take down a drone can be found guilty of criminal charges.

Anti-hacking laws

Even any efforts to wrest away control of drones via malware or signal spoofing can be penalized by laws that aim to prevent hacking of any type of computer system.

  • 18 USC Section 1030 – “(2) Whoever intentionally a computer without authorization or exceeds authorized access, and thereby obtains…any information from any protected computer.”

With these legal safeguards in place, it seems that the use of anti-drone technology, as well as its manufacture and distribution, is subject to authorization by the appropriate federal institutions. This should allay any concern of drone pilots that their drones can be shot down by their neighbors without legal implications.

Who can legally use anti-drone devices?

Over the years, efforts have been made to come up with guidelines on which federal and state institutions will be authorized to yield counter-drone devices. In 2018, the Preventing Emerging Threats Act gave legal authorization to the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security to track and mitigate drone-based threats.

With the authorization granted to the Justice Department, it also means that the privileges trickled down to seven of the department’s components. These include:

  • FBI
  • Federal Bureau of Prisons
  • Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives
  • Drug Enforcement Administration
  • US Marshals Service
  • Executive Office for US Attorneys
  • Justice Management Division

Although the authority has already been granted to these sub-units, they are still expected to seek approval from the Justice Department before deploying any counter-drone technologies unless under exceptional circumstances.

Examples cited of when the use of anti-drone devices is deemed acceptable include protective measures for a vehicle transporting a witness or for National Special Security Events like a presidential inauguration.

The Department of Defense and Energy was authorized by the National Defense Authorization Act of 2017 to use “reasonable force to disable, damage, or destroy” drones over select facilities. This authorization was then expanded when the National Defense Authorization Act of 2018 passed into law, adding the capability to “disrupt control of” or “seize” drones under the same conditions.

Still, US Attorney General William Barr suggested that local authorities come up with their counter-drone measures without having to wait for federal intervention. The objective of this is to allow them to move against any drone-related incident without having to secure authorization from the federal level. He did warn, however, that all anti-drone measures at the local level must be privacy protection laws and must not cause further harm to people and the national airspace.

If you’re unsure if there are specific anti-drone laws in your state or city, it would be best to consult your local law enforcement agency.

Final thoughts

The entire matter of anti-drone measures and technology remains very ambiguous. Even for the agencies under the limited authorization to use such devices, there are still a lot of federal restrictions that apply. While it’s true that drones can be dangerous in the wrong hands, anti-drone technology can be even more dangerous when not used responsibly.

Considering how much regulation is in place, drone pilots can at least rest assured that they cannot be shot down legally by just any person – especially if they are not doing anything illegal. This probably isn’t the time yet to be worried about anti-drone technology. Our energies are better spent improving how the general public perceives drone use.