US acknowledges the danger of drones

Technology is advancing at a rapid pace and drones can fly increasingly longer distances carrying larger and larger payloads. They are already being used extensively in conflict zones by both sides and even a simple hobby zone can be turned into a flying bomb in a matter of minutes to make a devastatingly effective ‘poor man’s weapon’.

Authorities are always slow to catch up with new technology and it usually takes a high-profile incident to bring a threat to their attention. Such an incident took place in August when two drones were used in an assassination attempt on Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. Fortunately, they weren’t successful, but the attack did serve as a wake-up call to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the US and a bill has now been proposed that recognises and attempts to deal with the threat posed by drones.

Current US Legislation for Drones

The main problem is that even a toy drone is presently classified as an ‘aircraft’ so it is illegal to interfere with it in any way. Although there is legislation to declare official no-fly zones around predesignated areas like airports, hospitals, and national borders, it doesn’t allow for the means to stop a drone if it breeches a restricted area. The operator may be prosecuted later, but there’s no legal way counter an immediate threat.

Even the term ‘threat’ needs to be clearly defined by the transportation secretary, the secretary of homeland security and the attorney general. The thinking behind this absence of definition is to allow the context and location to be taken into account but this doesn’t help when an unidentified drone is flying towards you at 100mph and you can’t legally do anything to stop it.

FAA Reauthorisation

The new bill attempts proposes to exempt counter-drone technology from many restrictive federal laws such as the Wiretap Act and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. This would allow authorities to seize or destroy a hostile drone by disrupting its communication systems – something that’s defined as wire-tapping or hacking under the current law. It also forgoes the need for a judge to sign off on any counter-drone measures well before any action can be taken, an aspect which is proving to be controversial in terms of civil liberties.

Although it still has some way to go, the bill is certainly a step in the right direction when it comes to legally recognising the new threat that drone technology poses. In the UK and the rest of the world, aerial threats are still not covered in most areas of legislation so we need to take heed and follow the example set by the US.

The Maritime Industry and the ISPS Code

The ISPS code requirements for SSAs and SSPs are specific and comprehensive regarding the identification and countermeasures for most risks. Part A para 1.3.3 mandates requirements: ‘preventing the introduction of unauthorised weapons, incendiary devices or explosive to ships’ and states that SSPs need to address countermeasures to protect from such threats. It also advises the: ‘monitoring of deck areas and areas surrounding the ship.’

However, drones have not yet been considered – they are not explicitly mentioned anywhere in the ISPS code. Current security equipment systems are unlikely to use automatic intrusion-detection devices or aerial surveillance equipment to prevent drones deploying weapons, dangerous substances and devices intended for use against persons and vessels.

A ‘straw poll’ of company security officers and ship security officers from within our existing client base was alarming – most were totally oblivious to the threat that drones present nor had they even contemplated this in their periodic reviews of the SSA/SSP.

The need for change

An urgent review of the SSA is required to contemplate and address aerial threats. The SSP should be updated accordingly with preventive measures and consideration should be given to installing a drone detection system to monitor deck areas and areas surrounding the ship.

Martek has been raising awareness of the issue and we’ve written to all maritime non-government organisations, classification societies and flag administrations to get their individual responses on the matter. We want to support the industry to ensure the mandatory objective of ISPS ‘to detect security threats and take preventive measures against security incidents affecting ships or port facilities used in international trade’ is fully fulfilled in its implementation.


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