Drones and security: The future of public space safety

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By Bill Edwards

After spending over two decades in intelligence, operations and security roles within the U.S. government, I’m well aware of the ever-growing benefits that technology brings—but I’m even more aware of the great threats it presents.

There is no better example of a technology with great benefits and even greater challenges than drones, or Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), specifically commercial drones. When stationed in Iraq as a commander and senior director of operations in the U.S. Army between 2010 and 2011, I witnessed both sides of this equation as a Battalion Commander with UAV capabilities and then later in my role as a theater director of intelligence I saw firsthand how drones can be used to carry weapons weighing up to 15 pounds, for illegal surveillance, to steal cyber secrets and more.

It is estimated that there will be over 800,000 drones in private hands in the U.S. alone by 2021. And as drone technology continues to develop, it presents an ever-growing challenge for security professionals, particularly those overseeing public gathering areas. To keep people safe, we must focus on developing policies on how to deal with drones from a defensive security standpoint.

Before I map out a blueprint to help you develop these policies, I’ll first reiterate that there are many positives associated with drones, from construction assessment, farming, commerce, health care, security and recreational uses. Drones can be used for deliveries, crowd control and as security monitors; they can help assess road conditions during inclement weather; for planting and assessing crops; to deliver emergency healthcare; for the monitoring of oil refineries, power plants, power grids and critical infrastructure.

But as beneficial as these uses are, the threats are vast. Drones can be used for potential cyber or physical attacks on critical infrastructure (power, water, life systems), airports, sporting events, public open-air events, concerts, and businesses. From intellectual property theft, to spying and assassinations, the list goes on, perhaps limited only by the imagination.

Given my work with government and private sector security, terrorism in any form is of course at the top of my mind. While organizations have been using commercial drones for surveillance and as a weapon for several years, terrorist organizations have developed, conducted, and promoted weaponized drone attacks in conflict zones promulgating the technology for use outside of the these areas.

In fact, ISIS conducted a propaganda campaign that focused on its successes of carrying out lethal UAS attacks against Coalition Forces in Iraq and Syria. In its propaganda efforts, ISIS encouraged its supporters in the West to use weaponized UAS platforms against Western targets. ISIS also provided Techniques, Tactics and Procedures (TTPs) for UAS operations. Meanwhile, other criminal organizations, including drug cartels, are also using UAS for nefarious purposes.

There is no simple solution to this wide range of threats, so it’s imperative that we implement risk mitigation measures that are tailored to address specific security situations and facility needs. In particular, the protection of public space should be a top priority for every security director and intelligence professional, and this can be achieved in part by staying informed about current advances in drone technology.  A good place to start are the top commercial drone producers—The market is controlled by three companies that supply nearly 100% of drones sold globally.  By understanding their product lines and specifications you will gain a better understanding of capabilities associated with drone use in public space.

There are a number of additional steps I suggest with regard to protecting public spaces from unauthorized drone activity. First, it’s imperative that security and intelligence personnel conduct a targeted Drone Security and Vulnerability Assessment (DSVA) focusing on access to the facility and its public space.

This will also include identifying and prioritizing vulnerabilities that require protection and expanding outward from those areas, establishing no-fly boundaries that should be heavily monitored. This requires identifying the resources—including capital, personnel, systems and outside experts—to implement the infrastructure and expertise required for the detection and monitoring of threats.

Identifying vulnerabilities for the facility’s airspace through advanced software and modeling tools is another key element of any plan to mitigate threats. Technological mitigation platforms include a drone detection and monitoring system, mass communication notification system, physical air-space observation posts and communication systems are necessary, as is an early warning system that allows for the time and space necessary for a quick reaction.    

But for all of this to come together in times of a real threat, a Drone Detection and Response (DDR) plan is necessary. You will need to rehearse and train staff on the DDR in order to establish and confirm standard operating procedures and emergency response actions, bringing in law enforcement, private security, medical services, and hazardous material experts where possible.

Drones have many benefits, but the threats they present are even greater. It’s imperative that security and intelligence personnel stay current with technology, conduct a Drone Security and Vulnerability Assessment (DSVA) and have a Drone Detection and Response (DDR) plan in place.

My military experience has showed me that a real threat or attack often comes when least expected. I believe the steps outlined above can serve as a blueprint for mitigating these threats and ultimately stopping an attack before it happens. 

About the author:

Bill Edwards is Vice President of Protective Design and Security at Thornton Tomasetti. He is responsible for planning, coordinating, resourcing and building operational/technical security services for the world-renowned structural engineering company with a long history of successful protective design and physical security projects. 

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