Anti-drone tech’s tangled regulatory landscape

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Staff take the test to keep drones away from Beijing Daxing International Airport with various devices, Beijing, China, 12 July 2019.

An Anti-drone test is conducted at Beijing Daxing International Airport before it comes into service in Beijing, China, 12 July 2019.No Use China. No Use France.
Staff test a system to keep drones away from Beijing Daxing International Airport on July 12, 2019, before putting the technology into service.

The market, and the military, have yet to settle on the best way to stop a drone.

Relatively small, easy-to-acquire drones have been implicated in everything from attempted political assassinations, to airspace incursions that have forced major airports to shut down, to smuggling contraband into prisons. The widespread availability of easy-to-pilot drones with good camera capabilities raises security issues that have fueled a growing market for technology to stop such remotely piloted aircraft.

While regulations for the flying of drones are far more settled in 2020 than they were in 2010, the regulatory landscape for technology to stop them is more unsettled. While many technologies exist that can variously track, identify, and disable drones in flight, these countermeasures risk either jeopardizing communications, violating Federal Communications Commission rules, infringing privacy, or causing inert robots to crash to the ground. Separate from this, but confounding the problem, security concerns around the testing of counter-drone tools mean that useful comparison data is hidden from the public, and often unavailable to government officials. 

What is a ‘drone’ anyway?

Part of the problem, broadly, is that “drone” is an expansive category, a catch-all phrase for vehicles that share the lack of an on-board human pilot. The flying body of a drone can be more technically defined as a “remotely piloted aircraft,” or an “unmanned aerial vehicle.” In conjunction with other aircraft, as well as ground control stations and other support, the term is sometimes a “remotely piloted system” or an “unmanned aircraft system.” Other names abound.

Beyond the confusing nomenclature, drones encompass a range of aircraft sizes, forms, and capabilities, all of which change how effective any given counter-drone approach can be.