Worries Mount Over Ability to Weaponize Drones

News Article | August 6th, 2018  Read the story on wsj.com → 
By Andy Pasztor and Dustin Volz

Attack on Venezuelan leader highlights security threats from off-the-shelf drones.

Drone industry and law-enforcement officials are struggling to find common ground over expanding flights and protecting public safety, a debate thrust into the public spotlight by a reported assassination attempt on Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

The Federal Aviation Administration is projecting a fourfold increase, from more than 110,000 currently, in the number of commercial drones flying in U.S. skies in the next five years. U.S. law-enforcement officials, however, want to delay widespread operations until reliable defensive systems are developed.

Saturday's attack with unmanned aircraft in Caracas was a reminder for the drone industry and U.S. government officials over the potential security threats even readily available commercial drones can pose.

Venezuelan authorities said a pair of explosive­laden drones carrying a total of about 4 pounds of plastic explosives were part of an unsuccessful assassination attempt during an outdoor ceremony in Caracas, with one of the vehicles detonating after government jamming devices knocked it off course. Mr. Maduro was unharmed, but seven soldiers were injured.

The incident is believed to be "the first time, outside of a war zone, that some group has weaponized a drone" to attempt an attack, said London-based consultant Pete Cooper, a former British government cyber expert who has published research in affiliation with the Atlantic Council, a think tank focused on international affairs. Mr. Cooper said it could serve as a catalyst for "other groups that may have considered, but then dismissed" such an attack, and now "may again pick up" the idea.

"Regulations will help, to a degree," Mr. Cooper said, but more proactive systems designed to target and neutralize drones are essential to guard against individuals or groups determined to conduct an airborne attack.

chart of projection of commerical drone fleet in the US over the next 5 years

Brendan Schulman, vice president of policy and legal affairs for Chinese-based SZ DJI Technology Co., the world's largest consumer­drone maker, said the Venezuela attack was a clear warning for the industry on the need for safety measures.

"I don't think it will impede the progress of commercial drones," Mr. Schulman said of the attack. But he said "it should enhance the speed" and "highlight the importance of implementing remote identification solutions/' which would give authorities greater abilities to track drones in the air, and trace them back to their owners on the ground.

Remote identification technology is one of many safety measures under consideration for drones. But the industry and the government have yet to reach a consensus on the best ways to identify and counter suspicious or hostile drones.

Debate over identification and defensive systems-which are technologically challenging and still in development-has been the major impediment to the expansion of commercial­drone operations nationwide.

But company and government officials said on Monday that the Venezuela attack exposed the urgency over developing effective safety measures, both to allow the burgeoning drone
industry to continue to grow and to protect the public from potential threats.

Proposed rules for remote identification systems initially were slated to be released by the end of this year. But last month, FAA officials said they were expected to be delayed until the spring of 2019. Completing them will take at least several additional months.

Until then, the debate will continue over proposed drone operations beyond the current 400-foot altitude and other strict limits.

The global drone industry has soared in recent years, with total deliveries for commercial and consumer uses in the U.S. alone climbing from less than 500,000 drones in 2014 to more than 3 million in 2017.

The Trump administration has been asking Congress for months to grant expanded authority to shoot down or otherwise disable potentially dangerous drones, citing among other concerns the ease with which terrorists can acquire and weaponize them.

"The danger from weaponized drones is real," Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said Sunday on Twitter. "It is time for Congress to give (DHS) the authority to counter this rapidly evolving threat."

As an intermediary step, federal agencies have unilaterally declared swaths of airspace off­limits for drones, including around and over military installations, power plants, nuclear­weapons facilities and certain government buildings.

At the same time, drone manufacturers are incorporating digital no-fly zones-referred to as "geo-fences" - in the navigation systems of their machines. That means operators simply can't command the drones to fly into prohibited areas.

"If society and government are comfortable that no-fly zones are sufficiently protected, then the industry will be able to grow in meaningful ways," said Tim Bean, co-founder and chief executive of closely held Fortem Technologies, a Salt Lake City startup offering detection and counter-drone technologies to government and corporate customers. Mr. Bean said Boeing Co. is a major investor in his company.

In Washington, a bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation in May that would empower the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department to protect buildings and other "assets" when officials deem there is an "unacceptable security risk" to public safety posed by drones.

The American Civil Liberties Union has objected to the legislation on grounds that it would provide the government with overly broad power to disable or destroy drones in civilian areas where there is no imminent risk to public safety.

Write to Andy Pasztor at andy.pasztor@wsj.com

Appeared in the August 7, 2018, print edition as 'Worries Mount Over Drone Safety After Venezuela Attack.'

About Fortem Technologies

Fortem Technologies is the leader in airspace awareness, security and defense. Through an advanced ecosystem of distributed radar, AI at the Edge, deep sensor integration, and autonomous drone capture, Fortem monitors, protects and defends the world’s venues, infrastructures, cities and regions from dangerous or malicious drone threats. The same ecosystem is accelerating the safety of the world’s airspace for urban air mobility. Based in Pleasant Grove, Utah, the company is privately held and backed by Boeing, Signia Venture Partners, DCVC, Mubadala Investment Company and others.

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