The new Trump administration is inheriting a highly volatile world with an ascending Russia, China and Iran, and an unstable Middle East. Europe is going through complex changes involving immigration, economic issues and Brexit, as well as increasing security issues. The security landscape is made even more complex by the rise and effectiveness of rogue states, criminal gangs, terrorists and malcontents who have become more formidable in part due to the rapid spread and democratizing of technology, such as the internet and high-speed wireless devices.
One such technology — autonomous systems, such as drones — has emerged as a major issue for U.S. military forces and law enforcement. Drones will require not only technological solutions, but also intelligent regulation, policy and planning to deal with their proliferation in the coming years.
While reports about the potential hazards of drones to pedestrians and aircraft have made it into the popular press, very little has been reported on actual drone use by terrorists and criminals.
From the wide-scale use of drones by drug gangs in Mexico to separatists in Ukraine using weaponized drones to attack government forces, commercial drones have rapidly become a major tool for hostile actors to provide themselves capabilities that only a decade ago were limited to major state powers.
Now groups like ISIS can, and do, deploy drones to act as surveillance platforms or simple guided weapons. While not as capable as U.S. military drones, commercial drones are cheap, hard to detect and hard to stop.
To help reduce the risk from drones, the Trump administration’s first step should be to advance new laws, regulation and policy.
Firstly, the administration can work closely with Congress to pass sensible laws to regulate drones — and also to counter drones. For example, current law treats drones very similarly to manned aircraft, such as a passenger plane. The consequence is that it is currently illegal to interfere with the flight of drone, just like a plane. Right now, most drone countermeasures — such as net guns, jammers, firearms and cyber-based systems — violate these laws. The result has been a legal morass on how private organizations, law enforcement and even government can deal with threatening drones in everything from the airspace around an airport to defending the White House.
The Obama administration, working with stakeholders such as the Federal Aviation Administration, made important strides to clarifying laws. Now, the Trump administration needs to work closely with Congress to create or modify laws to allow for effective countermeasures against drones that represent a threat to public safety.
Yet regulation and legislation will not solely reduce the risk from hostile drones.
Secondly, the administration can encourage and promote research and development of capabilities to stop drones and autonomous systems without causing harm to civilians or infrastructure.
Currently there is no single system or single approach to deal with threatening drones, let alone swarms of drones.
Furthermore, drones and autonomous systems, such as delivery robots, are becoming more sophisticated, making them harder to deal with.
For example, some drones are already equipped with the capability to dodge other drones or even nets fired at them. The rapid evolution of drone capabilities and associated autonomy creates an intricate issue for the administration to address: proactively dealing with emerging and future threats.
Government is notoriously reactionary both in design and practice — yet to deal with the emerging threats from drones and autonomous systems, the new administration must proactively develop policies that are relevant, not only during this administration’s tenure but for years to come.
The administration should encourage academia, industry and government to jointly think through the risks and rewards of these new emerging technologies, such as how to secure autonomous systems from hackers or how to clear an airspace of delivery drones in case of an emergency. Careful planning will stimulate emerging economic opportunities and create safeguards to protect society in the future, when drones, bots and autonomous systems will increasingly work and function near humans.
While autonomous systems, such as drones, present an increasing risk to security, a bold administration could foster new policies and regulations that would spur the growth of the drone market while responding to the security risk. Doing this would help the U.S. to effectively capitalize on the many economic benefits of drones while strengthening the U.S.’s and our allies’ security.
• Robi Sen is the founder and CTO of Department 13 Inc., which focuses on developing security solutions. He is a frequent lecturer on security and defense matters in relationship to emerging technology.