Opinion: A security risk Congress should take seriously

Editor’s note: Alejandro Mayorkas is the Secretary of Security. The opinions in this comment are his own. Read more reviews on CNN.


Football watch parties faced unexpected disruption recently when low-flying drones over the gridiron forced NFL and college football games to stop. In both cases, the drones departed without incident and there was no danger to fans in attendance, but each illustrates the potential public safety threat posed by unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) or “drones” to the public and the need for tools to combat it. .

Drones have become ubiquitous and help Americans do everything from capturing epic Grand Canyon sunsets, fighting wildfires, and assessing damage from natural disasters like Hurricane Ian. This technology is helping to make our economy more efficient and our communities safer, but even a seemingly innocuous drone poses a serious risk when flown in the wrong place or in the hands of someone with malicious intent.

As Americans travel in pre-pandemic numbers and return to sporting events, music festivals and other large gatherings, these risks increase.

Although unmanned aircraft systems may be small in size, the risk is increasing due to their increasing sophistication, speed and wide availability. Experts predict that global drone shipments will reach 2.91 million in 2023.

Their increased availability has very real implications for public safety and security. In recent years, we’ve seen bad actors abroad weaponize drones to attempt assassinations of heads of state, attack authorities, and attack critical infrastructure. The US Secret Service has found hundreds of drones in violation of temporary flight restrictions protecting high-ranking officials. Domestic air travel has also been affected.

Since 2019, at least 33 total or partial outages have occurred due to drones entering flight paths, causing millions of dollars in economic damage. Drones have collided with helicopters used by police, military and first responders.

The energy and chemical sectors regularly report suspicious activity related to drone flights. In 2020, a drone that crashed outside an electrical substation in Pennsylvania was found to have modifications designed to disrupt the grid. Last year alone, 235 suspicious drone flights were reported in or near chemical plants in Louisiana. Authorities are also aware of suspicious flights near oil storage facilities in Oklahoma and natural gas facilities in Texas.

Transnational criminals use drones to transport illegal narcotics and contraband across US borders and conduct hostile law enforcement surveillance on an almost daily basis. From August 2021 to May 2022, for example, US Customs and Border Protection intercepted more than 8,000 attempted cross-border drone flights.

We recognize and mitigate these threats thanks to the current authority to combat unmanned aircraft systems. In fact, DHS has safely protected our missions, the President, and the public more than 300 times, and we’ve worked with the FAA to minimize impact on the national airspace system, all while protecting people’s privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties.

But our current authority is limited and may expire. The TSA saw nearly 2,000 drones around airports last year, and 63 of those incidents required the pilots to take evasive action; however, neither the TSA nor state and local law enforcement can stop these drones under current law. In a recent drone incident at a professional football game in Seattle, local authorities did not have the necessary equipment or authority to prevent the drone from entering the restricted airspace above the stadium. It was fans who spotted the device and reported it to NFL officials. Building partnerships with local law enforcement agencies will be necessary to detect and mitigate threats going forward.

We are grateful that Congress recently passed a temporary measure to maintain our current ability to identify, detect and reduce the drone threat until December, but a short-term extension of the status quo is not a permanent solution to the growing threat. The ability of the private sector, and federal, state, and local governments to mitigate the threat posed by drones, depends on Congress passing the bipartisan C-UAS legislation enabling the Biden Administration’s Domestic Unmanned Aircraft Systems National Action Plan.

The law would better fortify our critical infrastructure, including our nation’s transportation system, from drone threats. It would help us work closely with state and local officials to detect dangerous drones and launch a pilot program to implement anti-drone protection activities with close oversight by the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice to ensure they are consistent with federal privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties. protection of civil liberties.

Swift action by Congress is necessary to create a more sustainable solution to respond to drone threats in the ever-changing risk environment we see today. Not continuing to empower the government to deal with this clear and present threat to our homeland would be unacceptable. Protecting public safety is our top priority, and it’s a responsibility we all share. We hope Congress agrees this year and acts quickly.