One of my side jobs is to take images of construction projects (often the areas with upcoming construction) with small unmanned craft (aka “drones”). I sometimes cover drones here at CleanTechnica because they’re mostly zero emissions and are replacing manned, ICE aircraft for many applications. Thus, they’re the perfect example of clean technology. Unfortunately, clean technology (like any technology) will be misused, and the people misusing it won’t always be someone making an honest mistake.
In fact, zero emissions or low emissions is sometimes the point for bad actors. A vehicle that doesn’t make a lot of noise and heat (and may not even emit radio waves) is a lot harder to do anything about.
My Experience: Law Enforcement Can’t Do Much About Drones
In one case near the US-Mexico border, my commercial drone attracted the attention of Border Patrol agents. Nothing I was doing was unlawful, but soon after landing and packing things up, I noticed a swarm of Border Patrol agents all over the area I was in. They were looking everywhere, often at the sky, and they were obviously looking for me.
As someone who previously worked in volunteer law enforcement, I know that most police (especially federal agents) don’t know poop from apple butter when it comes to the law unless it’s something they specialize in, so I didn’t flag them down. It only would have been a waste of time to discuss my lawful operations with them, so I just left the area as they continued to confusedly swarm the area. Not my problem.
What I found a little more concerning, though, is that the federal agents had basically no plan for interdicting drone pilots that are doing anything unlawful, like smuggling items over the border. If someone who was making zero effort to evade them did so successfully, their chances against an actual criminal drone user (like a smuggler or, even worse, a terrorist) are downright awful.
Several other experiences with confused police officers near a prison (which I had special permission to fly near) and several encounters with local police make it pretty clear that nobody in law enforcement knows what to do about drones. They don’t know what the laws are, how to spot real suspicious activity, or how to find the pilot in most cases.
What’s even worse is that I always operate according to FAA rules, and that requires that I keep the drone fairly close to myself. I know that even my photography drones are capable of operating several miles away from the operator (there are videos on YouTube of super-long flights people take), so a criminal user is likely to be 10 times harder to find than a legal licensed pilot such as myself. They’d be basically impossible for law enforcement to track down unless the criminal did something really stupid to get caught.
Before anyone says it, no, cops (or anyone else with a gun) can’t lawfully just shoot any suspicious drone down. At 400+ feet, that shot would be very difficult anyway (and dangerous to the public), and US federal law makes that a felony, regardless of the reason for the shoot-down. Nobody in law enforcement is going to risk their job and public safety over a drone unless there’s some very compelling reason to shoot it. They’d have to know for sure that it’s loaded with explosives, or they’re the President’s Secret Service agents and it’s headed toward the President. In other words, such an extreme situation is unlikely.
What I Didn’t Know Until Today: The Military Is Likewise Mostly Helpless
In a recent piece at TheWarZone, Tyler Rogoway paints a very detailed and frightening picture of current US military capabilities against small drones. The problem: if an object is in the sky and you don’t know what it is, it’s a UFO. People who talk about UFOs are largely regarded as conspiracy theorists, nutjobs, or fraudsters of some kind, so everyone’s afraid to take unidentified objects very seriously. Unfortunately, it’s fairly easy to identify many of the UFOs as low-cost drones likely operated by China or Russia, and nobody appears to be taking them seriously because they lump them into the same category as the “little green men” and flying saucers.
To be clear, Rogoway is not talking about the few UFO reports that are presently unexplainable. Things like the “Tic Tac” incident, where Navy pilots got decent optical imagery of a vehicle doing humanly-impossible things, are not what Rogoway discusses in his lengthy (but worth the read) article. He specifically and intentionally excludes anything outlandish and unexplainable. What remains, though, is often obviously remotely operated or even fully-autonomous drones and/or balloons that are well within the financial reach of not only near-peer militaries like China’s, but sometimes even poor rogue states and terror groups to operate.
These unknown craft have been spotted during military exercises, near air defense equipment, and around military bases. Their mission isn’t always known, but often their activities almost perfectly match electronic warfare and electronic snooping activities that could cripple the United States’ abilities were war to break out. By knowing things about how the US military operates, how its equipment works, etc., it’s possible for an enemy to evade US military capabilities (particularly radar) in the future.
Even more dangerous, these small drones could instead be outfitted to damage or destroy US military equipment instead of snooping on it. All it would take is for whoever operates them (likely China in many cases) to fit them with some small explosives instead of electronic snooping gear. Because small drones (whether powered by fossil fuels or electricity) have such a small radar cross section, they could easily slip in undetected and disable key systems like radar and missile defense. Nobody would know they were coming until it’s too late and key things are broken beyond reasonable and quick repair.
The US military (and allied militaries) could do a lot better at this. If there were an intelligence entity that actually took UFO reports seriously and was taken seriously, and sorted them out for actual threats like these Chinese and/or Russian drones, the military could be a lot more prepared for them. Instead, the stigma society (particularly government and military) places on UFOs has led to an environment where many people are afraid to even report strange things happening in the sky, and even when they are bravely reported, the reports don’t go anywhere for serious analysis or study for potential threats.
The US does have a military entity that’s supposed to look at these events (the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force, or UAPTF, which replaced the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, or AATIP), but it is obviously not a very serious or well-funded effort. Instead of being the go-to shop for this sort of data, the teams involved in UFO analysis are often behind the 8-ball trying to gather up data after they hear of something indirectly. Even when they undertake a serious investigation, other military and intelligence entities don’t take the “UFO guys” seriously, and often don’t give them access to the information they need to find and analyze very real threats.
The X-Files, a TV show where a serious federal agent and paranormal investigator is often not taken seriously despite things being very real, was supposed to be fiction, and not a guidebook for US military and intelligence operations.
Drones aside, the fear of reporting and thoroughly analyzing UFO phenomenon could leave the US and its allies flat-footed if China or Russia were to develop a revolutionary new aircraft. The moment someone sees the “impossible” happening in the sky, they’d be more concerned about getting to retirement without problems than they are about doing the right thing and making sure the threat is analyzed. They know nobody will ever take a serious look at it, so why bother risking your career and professional reputation, right?
In other words, unidentified flying objects are something people in the military are more likely to cover their own ass over than cover everyone’s asses (which is their actual job). Police, military, and others involved at all levels need to be taking UAV threats seriously and finding decent methods for dealing with them, while at the same time not causing bigger problems than are solved by harassing lawful users. To get there will require some serious effort that almost nobody seems willing to put in at present, and that’s a bad thing.
Featured image: Drone launch (cropped) courtesy of California National Guard.