The Rise of the Counter-Drone Industry

This was predictable.

After Congress pushed for years for the Federal Aviation Administration to rush through permissions to let drones fly above America, local authorities are discovering what countries throughout the Middle East at least pay lip service to: having drones flying freely overhead undermine the illusion of sovereign law on the ground.

As concerns rise about a security menace posed by rogue drone flights, U.S. government agencies are working with state and local police forces to develop high-tech systems to protect vulnerable sites, according to sources familiar with the matter.


Asked about the development of counter-drone-technology, the Department of Homeland Security said it “works side-by-side with our interagency partners” to develop solutions to address the unlawful use of drones. Officials with the Defense Department, FAA and New York Police Department declined to comment.

But the sources acknowledged that efforts to combat rogue drones have gained new urgency due to the sharp rise in drone use and a series of alarming incidents.

The number of unauthorized drone flights has surged over the past year, raising concerns that one could hit a commercial aircraft during landing or take-off, or be used as a weapon in a deliberate attack, the sources said.

Drones have flown perilously close to airliners, interfered with firefighting operations, been used to transport illegal drugs into the United States from Mexico, and sparked a security scare at the White House, among other incidents.

But U.S. authorities have limited tools for identifying drone operators, many of them hobbyists, who violate federal rules that drones fly no higher than 400 feet (120 meters) and no closer than 5 miles (8 km) to airports. One reason for the enforcement gap is that Congress in 2012 barred the FAA from regulating recreational drones.

A system capable of disabling a drone and identifying its operator would give law enforcement officials practical powers to block the flights.

The all-American solution, of course, is more products, more profit. Most of the rest of the article describes efforts to develop technology that can ID and take control of drones deemed by authorities to be operating illegally (though of course such technology could just as easily be used to limit the flight of a media drone tracking police abuse).

There’s no thought, in the article, of the alternative: slowing the enthusiastic roll-out of drones until issues of basic governance can be worked out (or until people realize that drones pose fairly unique challenge to governance as we have it now). Doing that would not only eliminate the opportunity to grow yet another new market for previously unnecessary technology, but raise uncomfortable questions about how we operated our unlawful drones around the world.

Update: As bloopie2 pointed out, a guy in San Diego just got busted for killing a drone surveilling him at the beach with his tee shirt.

And the WaPo reports there have been hundreds of near-misses between drones and planes that the FAA doesn’t want to tell us about.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

9 replies
  1. scribe says:

    There are many people who believe the most effective drone-regulating product is, and has long been, on the market: shotguns. The big debate in those circles is over the appropriate size of shot – bird or buck – and, to a lesser degree, the size, make and model of shotgun to use.
    After all, it’s nice to give the drone a sporting chance.

  2. wallace says:

    quote”Most of the rest of the article describes efforts to develop technology that can ID and take control of drones deemed by authorities to be operating illegally”..”unquote

    Congress calling for background checks and drone registration with the FAA in 5…4…3…2..

    quote”Doing that would not only eliminate the opportunity to grow yet another new market for previously unnecessary technology, but raise uncomfortable questions about how we operated our unlawful drones around the world.”unquote

    Unlawful drones? Since when has a Legal Imperialism gave a shit about
    “rule of law” OR uncomfortable questions? Hey..”we vaporized some folks..who cares”. Move on along now..nothing to see here.(insert rolling eyes smiley here)

    Given there is no Constitutional right to own and operate a private drone..vs the 2nd Amendment..I’ve got $5 some Congress schmuck will introduce a bill to outlaw private drones as soon as he sees a drone flying over his property. Or criminalize flying over USG officials homes. You betcha.

  3. bloopie2 says:

    Let’s see. RC aircraft (those cute remote controlled planes we grew up with) have morphed into drones, and now they want to regulate drones. I recall that I had some remote controlled cars, too, in my youth. Lots of fun to play with, we’d run them along the ground to crash into someone. They still sell those. Are they next? What about remote controlled robots? Boats? Spaceships? They can all interfere with or crash into someone else, and can certainly carry weapons. Are they all on the chopping block? I’d love to see if the FAA can rev up its bureaucracy fast enough to handle all this. (Answer: it can’t, maybe that’s why we have the counter-industry.) Perhaps we’re just going to end up with a state of affairs where any cop who sees an RC toy will immediately blast it to smithereens. That’ll put the fear of God in kids, for sure.

  4. galljdaj says:

    The most telling portion of the Article, stands out as; The USA is led by an acknowledge murderer at the top position in the Land! lil obama Our Murderer in Chief!

    How can murders being planned in Our White House by Our President not be crimes and no one is arresting or charging the perps! Killings… , when planned and executed from the US are not illegal under US Law, because the deaths are not within the Territorial Boundary! Bull Shit!!

  5. P J Evans says:

    How you know drones are Big Business: when a drone store opens up the street from you, in a corner strip mall.

  6. pdaly says:

    The FAA might limit commercial drones speed to a maximum of 100 mph?
    That seems too fast in a densely populated city or neighborhood.

    Although hovering drones seems a nuisance, too.
    I’m thinking about Florida v. Riley in which the US Supreme Court determined police do not require a warrant to observe private property from the air (at least at 500 feet or higher above the ground) in a plane or helicopter. <=Marijuana plants, war on drugs, I suppose.
    In a partial defense of the 4th Amendment, Justice O'Connor and dissenting judges thought the rarity of public manned flights over private property at heights below 400 feet might preclude police from doing so without a warrant.
    However, with drones that distinction fades. If the public can fly drones around private property at a height below 400 feet then what stops the police from doing the same and claiming no warrants necessary?

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