UAS being used for plenty of good, but counter-UAS still integral for protection of U.S. citizens, speakers say

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While UAS are being used in a variety of productive and positive ways, there is always the possibility for this technology to get into the hands of the wrong people, who might want to use it for harm. Protection against those bad users becomes more and more important each day with the constant development of these various technologies, according to speakers during the final day of Unmanned Systems Defense. Protection. Security.

During a panel discussion, representatives from three different government agencies talked about the importance of counter-UAS systems, not just for their agency specifically, but for the protection of the national airspace as a whole. Each agency faces its own unique threats, the speakers said, but they all have a common goal of protecting citizens from those trying to cause harm using drones.

Dr. Gerald Curry, deputy associate undersecretary for security at the U.S. Department of Energy, said the goal is to “quickly identify, track and defeat those technologies that are flying where they’re not supposed to.”

Anh Duong, program executive for UAS at the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology directorate, echoed Curry’s sentiments, saying it is important for the DHS to be able to identify those flying nefariously, whether they’re doing so unknowingly or on purpose.

For Duong, it is of the utmost importance to have an idea of who’s in the air and whether they pose a legitimate threat.

“Once you open up the skies, you have to determine friends from foes,” Duong said.

When it comes to cars, drivers are required to have a license, and cars are required to have a license plate. Duong believes that similar standards are necessary in the air for UAS, which could be made possible by an unmanned traffic management (UTM) system of some sort. Duong added that it is very important to test whatever mitigation platforms are used to help identify these systems, to determine whether they work.

Counter UAS is an especially important topic for the FBI, according to Joseph W. Mazel, associate general counsel chief at the FBI’s Operational Technology Law Unit. Mazel said the advancement of technologies has given criminals a helping hand, as they can use drones to do a number of unique things, such as surveilling a house to get an idea of its layout before attempting to burglarize it, or using them for 21st century voyeurism, which can lead to blackmail and other crimes.

With so many potential threats out, the counter-UAS business has become a lucrative one, with plenty of companies getting in on the action. One of those companies is Ascent Vision, whose CEO Tim Sheehy said that while many people think of these threats as an international issue, the domestic threat is “very real.”

Ascent Vision’s counter-UAS technology is designed with the acronym (DID) in mind, which stands for ‘Detect, Identify, Defeat.’ Sheehy said it was important to make sure this technology is compatible with existing force protection measures in place, and added that the technology has to be reliable, as well as adaptable and versatile.

Protecting good UAS

For those using drones in a positive manner, it is important to make sure that these systems are protected. Keynote speaker Dr. John A. Zangardi, chief information officer at the Department of Homeland Security, said when it comes to building UAS, cybersecurity has to be baked in from the beginning.

With different technologies being integrated with each other to accomplish various tasks and initiatives across different industries, one of Zangardi’s slides said, “the ubiquitous connectivity of devices across the internet of things present a number of cybersecurity challenges.” Zangardi said it was important to address issues of cybersecurity now, especially as we move toward 5G, which is steadily making its way on the horizon.

With so many different systems being developed and fielded for use, it is important to make sure that when these systems interact with each other, their data isn’t being compromised, which can have negative consequences that reverberate at many different levels.

Protecting against cyber threats is a constant game of cat and mouse, and some might even say it’s like a competitive sport, which made Zangardi’s reference of a quote from legendary baseball player Yogi Berra, especially apropos.

“Yogi’s right, someone’s got to win and someone’s got to lose,” Zangardi said. “I don’t want it to be the cyber attacker, I want us to win.”

DOI and FBI utilize UAS to save lives, catch bad guys

In 2017, the Department of the Interior used UAS to assist in the response efforts of various natural disasters that impacted different parts of the United States.

According to Mark. L Bathrick, director of the Office of Aviation Services at DOI, 2017 was a “tremendous year for us,” as UAS were routinely used. Bathrick said the department decided to use the technology for “500 million reasons,” in regard to the agency being the largest single land steward in the United States, managing 500 million acres of surface land.

Bathrick said ultimately, drones provide four main benefits: sensing, savings, safety and service. UAS are cheaper alternatives to manned aircraft, and ultimately allow the DOI to be much more responsive, whether providing services following a major hurricane or helping to battle wildfires during hours when manned aircraft aren’t operational.

Scott Brunner, section chief at the FBI’s Surveillance and Aviation Section, Critical Incident Response Group, said UAS have been beneficial to the FBI as well. Among the many use cases, the FBI has used UAS to find evidence related to a murder, and the technology has also been used to assist in the manhunt of a person suspected of killing a Pennsylvania state trooper.

“Use in certain operations has proved extremely beneficial,” Brunner said.