Division of Security Policy
Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, have been in the news lately. Last fall, unidentified drones breached restricted airspace over 13 of France’s 19 nuclear power plants in a seemingly coordinated fashion. In January, a drone crashed onto the lawn of the White House. And this week, a drone was found on the roof of the Japanese prime minister’s office.
Drones may be fun toys, but they pose a number of concerns. They can be used to conduct surveillance to gather intelligence about facility security. They can also be used to deliver payloads that could include explosives. While the majority of drones currently in use are relatively small, larger ones are becoming available that could possibly deliver payloads capable of causing damage to facilities that are not hardened.
Security experts haven’t yet identified who was responsible for the French flyovers, but with the prices of drones falling and their popularity rising, the potential threat will likely continue to grow.
There are ways to detect and intercept drones, such as jamming radio signals or using helicopters to pursue encroaching drones. Chinese scientists are developing a laser weapon that can detect and shoot down small, low-flying aircraft, and interception drones have the ability to drop nets over intruding drones. However, there are many legal issues that challenge the use of these techniques.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has a long-standing “Notice to Airmen” warning pilots not to linger over nuclear power plants. The FAA has also issued guidelines on where users should not fly drones, but the industry is largely unregulated as more companies look to use the relatively new technology in their businesses. The FAA has been working to craft a comprehensive regulatory framework for drones, following calls from Congress and the President, and recently issued draft regulations for the commercial use of drones.
President Obama likened the drone industry to cyberspace, which has brought new technologies that U.S. laws are still trying to catch up to.
“These technologies that we’re developing have the capacity to empower individuals in ways that we couldn’t even imagine 10-15 years ago,” the President said, pledging to work to create a framework that “ensures that we get the good and minimize the bad.”
Given the evolving nature of technology and the need to balance the threat with the potential benefits of drones, the NRC is actively engaging with the departments of Homeland Security, Energy, and Defense to move this government collaboration effort forward. For example, we have reached out to the FAA to examine available legal and regulatory options, and attended inter-agency meetings to learn about how other agencies are addressing potential impacts from drones.
In addition, NRC will participate in a U.S.-initiated drone working group under the nuclear counterterrorism umbrella with the governments of France and the United Kingdom. The NRC has provided, and will continue to provide, pertinent information on this topic in a timely manner to its licensees to ensure continued safe and secure operations.