Joe Biden administration seeks more power to counter use of drones in US

White House plan calls for expansion of agencies that can track and monitor unmanned aerial vehicles

This handout photo made available by the Iranian Army press office shows a military drone flying above an undisclosed location in Iran during a military exercise. AFP Photo / HO / Iranian Army Office

President Joe Biden's administration is calling on Congress to expand authority for federal and local governments to take action to counter the nefarious use of drones in the US due to increased concerns over security as well as the nuisance they can cause.

The White House on Monday released an action plan that calls for expanding the number of agencies that can track and monitor drones flying in their airspace. It calls for establishing a list of US government-authorised detection equipment that federal and local authorities can purchase and creating a national training centre to counter the malicious use of drones.

The White House in a statement said it was critical that Congress “adopt legislation to close critical gaps in existing law and policy that currently impede government and law enforcement from protecting the American people and our vital security interests”.

The federal governmentwide focus comes as the Federal Aviation Administration projects that more than two million drones will be in circulation in the US by 2024 and as availability of detection and mitigation technologies — including jamming systems — are limited under current law.

The White House plan calls for expanding existing counter-drone authorities for the departments of Homeland Security, Justice, Defence and Energy as well as the CIA and Nasa in limited situations.

The proposal also seeks to expand drone detection authorities for state, local, territorial and tribal law enforcement agencies and critical infrastructure owners and operators.

It calls for establishing a six-year pilot programme for a small number of state, local, territorial and tribal law enforcement agencies to take part in a drone detection and mitigation operation under the supervision of the Justice Department and Homeland Security.

Currently, no state or local agencies have such authorisation.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said the administration's legislative recommendations “are vital to enabling DHS and our partners to have the necessary authorities and tools to protect the public, the president and other senior officials, federal facilities and US critical infrastructure from threats posed by the malicious and illicit use” of drones.

In the US, drones have become increasingly ubiquitous and useful tools for law enforcement agencies as well as for agricultural use, commercial photography and hobbyists. But there are growing concerns over their use.

In January 2019, Newark Liberty International Airport halted all landings and diverted planes for more than an hour after a potential drone sighting. Smugglers have used drones to deliver illegal drugs into the country. In 2015, there were two separate incidents in which drones crashed on White House grounds.

Federal and local authorities say that drones have also been used to smuggle contraband, including mobile phones and drugs, into prisons.

National security officials have also found the use of drones in last November's unsuccessful assassination attempt against Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi and an August 2018 attack on Venezuelan President Nicholas Maduro “quite troubling”, said a senior administration official who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity before Monday's formal announcement.

The counter-drone plan calls for establishing a mechanism to co-ordinate research, development, testing, and the evaluation of detection and mitigation technology across the federal government.

The White House says it also wants to work with Congress to enact a criminal statute that sets standards for the illegal uses of drones, and bolster co-operation with other countries on counter-drone technologies.

Updated: April 25, 2022, 6:13 PM