Lawmakers, Biden, sports leagues press for new action on drone threats

By Reuters   July 14, 2022 | 06:57 pm PT
Lawmakers, Biden, sports leagues press for new action on drone threats
A Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) sign warns against the use of civilian drones outside Point Mugu Naval Air Station (NAS) near Oxnard, California, U.S., March 29, 2022. Picture taken March 29, 2022. Photo by Reuters/Chris Helgren
Lawmakers and U.S. sports leagues on Thursday backed a bid by the White House for expanded powers from Congress to detect and disable threatening drones.

Congress in 2018 expanded the authority of the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security to disable or destroy threatening drones, which are formally known as unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). But the Biden administration says Congress needs to renew existing authority and expand its powers as the number of registered drones jumps. Those 2018 drone authorities are set to expire in October.

The Biden administration wants to extend drone detection and destruction powers to agencies like the CIA and State Department to protect U.S. facilities as officials say drones are costing millions of dollars in delays at U.S airports.

Senator Gary Peters, a Democrat who chairs the Homeland Security Committee, said at a hearing on Thursday he plans to release proposed legislation in the coming weeks to extend existing authority and "strengthen counter-UAS authorities to better tackle this threat."

On Thursday, the National Football League, Major League Baseball, NCAA and NASCAR sent a joint letter to Congress backing the Biden administration proposal, saying expansion of drone authority "will play an important role in helping to ensure the safety of major sporting events, including the safety of the millions of American fans who attend these events each year."

Deputy Assistant Attorney General Brad Wiegmann told the Senate on Thursday that "outdoor mass gatherings, like open-air sports stadiums, are particularly vulnerable to drone attacks."

The White House wants to extend powers to detect and destroy or disable threatening drones to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) for airports and the U.S. Marshals Service for prisoner transports.

DHS official Samantha Vinograd said TSA since 2021 "has reported nearly 2,000 drone sightings near U.S. airports, including incursions at major airports nearly every day."

She added that "since 2019, drone incidents have caused U.S. airports to fully halt operations three times, and in 2021, over 30 partial suspensions of operations - resulting in millions of dollars of economic damage."

The sports leagues praised the Biden plan to "implement a pilot program extending counter-drone authority, under appropriate oversight and training, to certain state and local law enforcement officials involved in protecting mass gatherings at sporting events."

White House Homeland Security Adviser Liz Sherwood-Randall said the Biden proposal will "be groundbreaking in improving our defenses against the exploitation of UAS for inappropriate or dangerous purposes."

There are over 800,000 registered drones in the United States. The FBI has conducted 70 drone and counter-drone protection operations at large events like the Super Bowl since 2018.

During those operations, "FBI’s counter-UAS teams detected 974 unauthorized drones operating in flight restricted areas, located the operator in 279 instances, and attempted mitigation against 50 drones."

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