Counter drone technologies and legal aspects

Drones – how dangerous can they be?

The dangers of drones are no longer just a question of military use. The ease of acquiring and controlling drones as well as the possibility to test invented tasks in advance means that small flying devices are already used not only by the military. Currently, they are becoming more and more popular in various criminal groups.

Scenarios of terrorist attacks using civilian drones are not only analyzed by the services of individual countries, but also physically tested. Also, many institutions in the USA responsible for national security pay attention to new threats related to the use of drones.

Moving a drone in the air available to everyone has opened up completely new possibilities, for example for surveillance. Civil drones from the beginning of their existence have been used to observe and record various events and objects from a height. Terrain obstacles, commonly used protection measures, are not a problem for this type of flying devices. Drones have become the cheapest and easiest way to spy.

They are most often used to obtain photos / videos from private events, industrial espionage and recognition of specially protected areas in terms of the protection system of a given facility and infrastructure.

Due to the possibility of the drone getting into previously inaccessible places and the possibility of installing appropriate devices next to it, the theft of data, e.g. from phones or computers, has also become a part of drones.

Drones also find their use in smuggling. The low ability to detect not only the drone but also its pilot and the relatively low costs of building or purchasing the device make it a desirable smuggling tool.

Counter-drone technology – how we can protect ourselves against attacks

Counter-drone technologies generally fall into two categories: detection and mitigation.

Detection technologies include infrared devices to track heat signatures, radio frequency detection for signals from a drone’s remote controller, and acoustic methods to recognize the unique sounds of drone motors. This category includes all radars, radio wave receivers, audio sensors and optical sensors.

To be precise: these systems can do little to stop the drone, just signal where the drone and possibly its operator are. In some cases the authorities can locate the drone operator on the ground and get him to land the drone before anything happens.

Mitigation technologies are those that can repel or intercept a drone. For example, interference signals can jam the communications between the drone and its operator. Other technologies can try to net the drone, shoot it down, or disable it using trained hawks.

In this category we can find: Jammers, Spoofers (for GPS signals), Hackers, Sonic, Destroyers (such as lasers, electromagnetic Pulse), Snaggers e.t.c. Using these devices can pose a number of legal problems.

Who is allowed to use counter-drone technology?

The use of counter-drone technology is allowed and already legally regulated in some aspects and in some geographical areas. The U.S. Congress has started seeing the need for Counter-Unmanned Aircraft System (CUAS) and has directed the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in Section 2206 of the FESSA of 2016 to establish a pilot program for airspace hazard mitigation at airports and other critical infrastructure using unmanned aircraft detection systems. The Federal Aviation Administration has since started doing a pathfinder program with some companies to use the technology at airports.

Since then, a number of acts and orders have been issued, as a result of which, for example, the UAS counter was increased, and some departments were granted the power to combat them, as a result of which, for example:

The Department of Defense could use counter-drone technology to secure domestic military bases.

The Department of Energy could use it to protect sensitive nuclear facilities.

The Department of Justice could use it to secure prisons and prevent drones from smuggling contraband inside.

The Department of Homeland Security could use it to protect large gatherings.

In addition, the agencies began to look at the problem of the emergence of drones near airports and issued appropriate technical guidelines.

Counter-drone technology – legality problem

Counter drone systems are based on multi-sensor anti-drone solutions, using radar technologies, radio finders, scanners and RF transmitters, acoustic sensors, cameras, neutralizers and the drone takeover modules.

Most counter drone systems have dedicated software. The monitoring center is responsible for the analysis and visualization of data collected by all elements of the system that are installed in the protected area. This is where data from radars, cameras and other sensors are processed and visualized. The monitoring center is typically available in a desktop or mobile version. The main functions of the counter drone systems are:

– early detection of UAVs, even before take-off;

– automatic BSP type classification and self-foreigner identification;

– distinguishing UAVs from other flying objects;

– real-time UAV flight path tracking;

– detection of the operator’s position;

– the ability to take control of the drone;

– automatic or manual neutralization of drones;

– neutralization of commercial drones with a method that does not interfere with other drones and communication signals;

– a system integrated with a camera that tracks the detected object;

– visualization of the tactical situation picture adapted to the user’s needs on online or offline maps;

– editing maps and tactical tasks: designating protected zones, enabling individual surveillance zones;

– data collection and archivization;

– automatic sensor calibration.

A number of these methods face regulatory and legal issues.

As for legal regulations, from 2021 the provisions of two EU regulations are applied in Poland – Commission Implementing Regulation (EU) 2019/947 and Commission Delegated Regulation (EU) 2019/945. This former focuses mostly on operational issues, drone flights, powers, categories, while the latter, relates to manufacturers and distributors of drones and mainly concerns the issues of standardization or certification.

The 2020 EU Security Union Strategy and Counter-Terrorism Agenda state that the threat of non-cooperative UAS is a serious concern in Europe. The Action Plan on synergies between civil, defence and space industries includes a drone technologies flagship project, involves, e.g. the EU drone strategy 2.0 (2022) aimed at enabling and accelerating the further development of UAS tech in Europe, including C-UAS. It was proposed that the European regulatory framework for safe drone operations will enter into force, namely U-Space – the European UTM arrangement (January 2023).

Many EU partners are engaged in counter-UAS, including Institutions, EU Agencies, LEA’s & networks and funded consortia.

In addition, the legal picture of Counter Unmanned Aerial Systems should be completed with the different sectors affected by the use of this technology, for example, data protection, data privacy, telecommunication law, rules on product liability, criminal and insurance law.

The very core issue in this regard is the issue of data collection and processing. In this respect there shall be applicable the rules set forth by GDPR in UAS operations. European Data Protection Supervisor has provided recommendations for manufacturers, suggesting also the EU Commission to propose companies (i) to adopt different categories of sensors depending on the private sector buyers’ business objective; (ii) to set up data retention by design; (iii) to provide tools with data protection friendly functionalities such as the possibility to turn on and off sensors in flight, automatic masking of private areas, automatic detection and pixelation of faces; (iv) to configure by default any functionality provided by the devices to the most privacy-friendly settings; and, (v) to provide clear information to the user on privacy issues that may arise when using the device. Some different examples of technological solutions for GDPR-complying drones include encryption tools for video recording by drones, streamed in real-time to a remote control cente, differential privacy tools for managing data protection risks raised by drones through the design of flight maps, with the aim of minimizing drones movements and personal data collection.