D.C. Airport Incident Exposes Gaps in Counter-Drone Authorities

  • More than 2,000 drones reported near airports since last year
  • Sen. Peters aims to release bill before August recess

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A drone flight’s brief disruption of air traffic just miles from the US Capitol highlights the urgency of expanding the federal government’s power to take down aerial devices that threaten the public, officials say.

The reported drone sighting near Ronald Reagan National Airport just outside Washington, D.C., led the Federal Aviation Administration to halt temporarily take-offs and landings Thursday afternoon, just as many lawmakers were heading out of town for the weekend. A spokesperson for the airport said it resumed flights about 45 minutes after receiving reports of the sighting.

The disruption is a prime example of why Congress needs to extend and expand federal counter-drone authorities, a senior Transportation Security Administration official told Bloomberg Government. The threat is much more pervasive than the agency previously thought, the official added.

The Biden administration in April proposed legislation to renew and broaden federal authority over unmanned aerial systems after current authorities expire in October. TSA doesn’t have explicit authority to take down drones that encroach on restricted airspace — the agency instead has to get approval from other officials in the Department of Homeland Security, bogging down response times, the TSA official said.

Drone Threats to Border, Airports Ramp Up Pressure on Congress

Photo: Stefani Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images
A plane at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Va., where flights were briefly paused Thursday after reports of a drone sighting.

TSA Administrator David Pekoske pushed the issue during a Senate hearing a few hours before Thursday’s incident, saying reports of drone sightings around airports are “just the tip of the iceberg” of the number of drone threats actually present.

“This is something that we need to be able to respond to on an instant, and having those direct authorities will greatly enable that,” he said during a Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing.

A DHS official told lawmakers earlier this week that the agency had received more than 2,000 drone sightings near airports since last year.

The Biden administration’s proposal would give TSA direct authority to detect and disrupt drones around airports and would provide new detection authorities to state and local law enforcement. The senior TSA official said the plan would help the agency respond faster to potential threats and would allow it to continue its current analysis of drone threats at major airports.

Airport Drone Threats Spur Biden to Seek Crackdown, Add Fines

Gary Peters (D-Mich.) is working on the drone authority legislation in the Senate and said Thursday he hopes to introduce it before Congress breaks for recess in August.

The DC airport incident underscores the importance of increasing enforcement of drone rules, Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) said.

“Most drones are going to be someone who’s trying to take video or pictures or whatever, but you don’t know. It’s that one time that you have to protect for,” Rosen said in a hallway interview. “We’re just going to have to continue to make more robust investments in the enforcement and be a little bit stricter about it because people’s lives are on the line.”

The FAA is making “significant progress” in improving its drone detection and counter-UAS testing at airports, the agency told Bloomberg Government in a statement.

The FAA said it is also evaluating technologies to detect and mitigate risks from unmanned aircrafts. The agency tapped five airports to test systems last year.

With assistance from Lillianna Byington

To contact the reporter on this story: Ellen M. Gilmer in Washington at egilmer@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Sarah Babbage at sbabbage@bgov.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com

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