Rogue Drones Force Gatwick Airport Closure: Is the U.S. Equipped to Handle a Similar Situation?

Although we would rather be writing about the UK’s first drone delivery using 4G networks earlier this week – both groundbreaking and seasonal, as the Vodafone drone was dressed up as Santa’s sleigh –  rogue drone operators elsewhere in the country have forced us to change course and think about the threats drones can pose to airports.  Major news outlets are reporting that Gatwick Airport, the second-largest airport in the UK, was forced to close last night due to unidentified drones being spotted near the runway.  As of time of publication of this post, these operations appear to be continuing, reportedly with the intention of disrupting the airport—and the airport remains closed, affecting tens of thousands of travelers.

The U.S. has not experienced a disruption of this magnitude caused by a drone, although there have been documented instances of drones flying dangerously in close proximity to airports.  Given the hazards inherent in small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) operating in close proximity to commercial airliners, an incident like the one at Gatwick raises questions about whether and how well-prepared the United States is to handle the threat of rogue drones operating near airports.  Existing regulations are in place to limit flights near airports and provide mechanisms to enable lawful operation in airport-adjacent (Class B, C, D, and E) airspace.  Under the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Part 107 rules, commercial UAS operators are prohibited from operating in Class B, Class C, or Class D airspace or within the lateral boundaries of the surface area of Class E airspace unless they have prior authorization from Air Traffic Control (ATC).  Although the FAA initially handled airspace authorization requests through an online application process with a several-week processing window, the agency is in the process of deploying the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC), which allows for near-real-time approvals to operate in restricted airspace.  According to the FAA, LAANC is now available at nearly 300 air traffic facilities spanning 500 airports.

Hobbyist UAS users are also required to obtain prior approval to operate in airport-adjacent airspace.  Although Part 101 of the FAA’s rules requires only that a hobbyist provide ATC with prior notice of the operation, this regulation was based on Section 336 of the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act.  The 2018 FAA Reauthorization Act, signed into law in October, repeals Section 336 and imposes slightly different restrictions on hobbyists.  One such restriction is that hobbyists now must “obtain[] prior authorization from the [FAA] or designee before operating” in airport-adjacent airspace. The FAA has not yet announced a streamlined LAANC-like mechanism for obtaining such authorization.  In addition to enhancing the restrictions on hobbyist operations near airports, the Act also recognizes that “the unauthorized operation of [UAS] near airports presents a serious hazard to aviation safety,” and encourages the FAA to “place particular priority on continuing measures . . . to educate the public about the dangers . . . of operating [UAS] near airports without the appropriate approvals or authorizations.”

But even assuming hobbyists and commercial operators alike can obtain near-real-time authorizations to operate in restricted airspace nationwide, this only provides a mechanism for law-abiding drone users to utilize the airspace—it doesn’t stop the rogue operators.  That’s one reason why in the U.S., the ability to remotely identify the operators of UAS in flight (Remote ID) is viewed as an essential component of the regulatory scheme and is a key priority for the FAA.  The Reauthorization Act provided a much-needed fix to a gap in existing law that prevented the FAA from applying Remote ID to hobbyists.  With the regulatory authority to apply Remote ID to all aircraft, the FAA will be able to proceed with a rulemaking and adopt Remote ID rules over the next couple of years.

Even with the ability to identify UAS owners and operators, the question remains as to how drone threats can be mitigated, and who can conduct that mitigation.  Here too, the Reauthorization Act advances the ball, including as related to airport safety specifically.  First, the Act expanded the list of federal agencies authorized to undertake counter-UAS measures to protect certain assets and missions of the agency.  This list now includes the Departments of Defense (DOD), Energy, (DOE), Homeland Security (DHS), and Justice (DOJ).  The Act further requires the FAA to develop a plan for certifying, authorizing, and deploying counter-UAS systems, and requires the FAA to charter an aviation rulemaking committee (ARC) to make recommendations related to this plan.  With respect to airport safety, the Act requires the FAA to test and evaluate counter-UAS technologies by deploying a counter-UAS pilot program at five airports, one of which must rank in the top ten most frequented airports. 

Notably, the Act does not give any express counter-UAS authority to state or local governments (including airport authorities), and the proper balance of the role between state and federal authorities raises complex questions in the context of UAS enforcement.  While the federal government rightly enjoys broad regulatory authority over the national airspace, air navigation, and aircraft safety standards, the FAA has limited means to enforce its regulations.  It is generally understood that state and local law enforcement have a role to play in ensuring the safety of the airspace, particularly with the proliferation of small UAS.  To this end, the Reauthorization Act requires the FAA to establish a pilot program to utilize Remote ID technology “for safety oversight, including enforcement actions against operators of UAS that are not in compliance with applicable Federal aviation laws.”  This pilot program must include a mechanism for the public as well as federal, state, and local law enforcement to report a suspected unlawful operation.  The Act also requires the FAA to develop a “comprehensive strategy to provide outreach to State and local governments and provide guidance for local law enforcement agencies and first responders” on identifying and responding to public safety threats posed by UAS.  Importantly, the means available to state and local law enforcement to mitigate UAS threats do not, and cannot, include signal jamming.  As we have previously explained, this type of interference with radio spectrum intrudes on the exclusive authority of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and implicates a host of laws, including federal criminal statutes—prohibitions which extend to state and local law enforcement.

Finally, penalties also have a role in protecting airport-adjacent airspace.  FAA regulations already prohibit the reckless operation of UAS and require UAS to give way to manned aircraft, and the U.S. criminal code already prohibits damaging, destroying, disabling, or wrecking aircraft.  That same provision also bars “interference” with a person operating an aircraft, either in a way designed to cause harm or in a way that is reckless.  And while that latter provision seems like it could be used in a Gatwick-style incident, the Reauthorization Act adds a new provision that removes any doubt: it is now a federal crime to use a UAS to knowingly or recklessly interfere with or disrupt the operation of an aircraft carrying passengers “in a manner that poses an imminent safety hazard” to the passengers, or to (as the Gatwick operators appear to be doing) knowingly operate a UAS in a runway exclusion zone without proper authorization.  Penalties for the new criminal provisions include fine or imprisonment, with maximum prison terms of one year (committing the prohibited operations without causing any bodily injury), ten years (causing serious bodily injury or death by recklessly operating near other aircraft), or life (causing, or attempting or conspiring to cause, serious bodily injury or death by knowingly operating near aircraft or in a runway exclusion zone).

In sum, while under current law it is certainly possible for the U.S. to experience a Gatwick-style drone disruption, efforts are underway at all levels of government to reduce the risk and mitigate the threat of such an event, and these efforts are being facilitated considerably by multiple provisions in the FAA Reauthorization Act.  Notably, the federal government has recognized the need for a multi-faceted approach that includes deterring airport interference by UAS operators, providing mechanisms for lawful use of aircraft-adjacent airspace, identifying rogue drone operators, taking countermeasures against the drones, and punishing bad actors.

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