FBI Director: Terrorist Drones Are ‘Imminent’ Threat

On Wednesday, FBI Director Christopher Wray told Congress that terrorist attacks in the United States by groups using drones were an “imminent” threat. Such attacks could be launched against soft targets using the small unmanned aircraft armed with chemical weapons or small explosives.

“We do know that terrorist organizations have an interest in using drones; we’ve seen that overseas already with some growing frequency and I think the expectation is it’s coming here imminently,” Wray testified before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee as reported by the Washington Free Beacon. “I think they are relatively easy to acquire, relatively easy to operate, and I think quite difficult to disrupt and monitor.”

ISIS has been known to use drones in both a surveillance and an attack role. Last April, Fox News reported that ISIS had posted online videos with instructions for arming commercially-available drones.

“Two years ago, this was not a problem,” said Nicholas Rasmussen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center. “One year ago, this was an emerging problem. Now it’s a real problem, and so we are quickly trying to up our game.”

Rasmussen said that counterterrorism agencies are working to understand and defend against the threat of drones. In Iraq, drones have been used by ISIS to drop bombs on Iraqi government troops, but merely flying an unarmed drone in the vicinity of a busy airport could bring down a commercial airliner. Last week, an army helicopter collided with a small drone over New York, but was able to land safely. The operator of the drone has not been identified.

Several private companies are working on anti-drone projects as well. Droneshield provides devices to detect drones as well as the “dronegun” that jams the remotely controlled aircraft and forces them to land. The company’s products have been used by law enforcement and military organizations in the field. Another company, Department 13, has developed software that allows operators to take control of threatening drones.

Current federal law complicates the ability of local law enforcement and private companies to defend against drone attacks. The federal government considers drones to be aircraft and it is a federal crime to shoot at any aircraft. Popular Mechanics points out that state laws that allow police to target threatening drones are in conflict with federal law.

Drone technology is advancing at a rapid clip and terrorists have proven adept at altering new technology to their purposes. Drone aircraft are cheap, plentiful, anonymous and can adopted to perform a variety of roles. This makes them attractive to terrorists and difficult to defend against.

Drone Collides With Army Helicopter Over New York

It was bound to happen. With hundreds of thousands of drones flying in the United States, many with amateur operators, one of them was bound to hit a manned aircraft sooner or later. New York City’s ABC 7 and Fox 5 are reporting that today was the day.

The local news teams say that a US Army UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter was struck by a drone over Staten Island today. The helicopter, based out of Fort Bragg, N.C. was conducting security patrols for the meeting of the United Nations General Assembly when it collided with the drone at approximately 500 feet above the ground.

The drone was apparently shattered by the collision. Pieces of the drone damaged two rotor blades and the fuselage of the helicopter. A fragment of the drone was reportedly embedded in the helicopter’s oil cooler.

The Blackhawk pilot was able to safely land the helicopter after the collision. There were no reported injuries.

There have been a number of reported collisions between manned aircraft and drones, but this may be the first in the United States. A Youtube video purporting to show a drone strike the wingtip of a Southwest Airlines 737 in 2015 was revealed to be a hoax.

Under current FAA regulations, “model aircraft” under 55 pounds are exempt from federal registration if they meet certain requirements. These model aircraft are not supposed to be flown higher than 400 feet or in a manner that conflicts with manned aircraft.

The drone collision over New York seems to have inflicted minimal damage on the helicopter, but future incidents might well be worse. Popular Mechanics notes that, unlike the flock of seagulls that sent US Airways Flight 1549 into the Hudson in 2009, a drone is made of denser materials.

“Birds can disintegrate relatively easily…you get something like a very viscous bulk of fluid on the other side” said Javid Bayandor of the Crashworthiness for Aerospace Structures and Hybrids (CRASH) Lab at Virginia Tech. “A drone can be like a rock going through the engine.”

As drones get bigger and become more and more common, the danger they pose increases. A large drone that is ingested into an aircraft’s engine – or worse, hits the cockpit at a high closing speed – at low altitude could have disastrous consequences.

So You or Your Kid Wants a Drone

If you follow me regularly on social media, you’ll know I have a drone. I recently upgraded from a DJI Phantom 4 to a DJI Phantom 4 Pro+. The camera quality and sensors are very much improved, but it is an expensive product.

Lately, a lot of people have asked me about buying a drone. I figured it was easiest if i just put it here. The fact is that drones can be difficult to fly, are expensive, and you really need to know what you are doing. They can be dangerous and are too expensive to break.

What I have started recommending is that you buy this first. It is a $20.00 indoor helicopter from Amazon.com Before I started flying drones, I flew this. It was the perfect training vehicle.

The helicopter is cheap, has similar controls to a drone, and flies indoors where you have to learn to control it in often cramped conditions.

Honestly, I broke a half dozen of these getting started. But they are $20.00 and I was not too upset about it. I finally ordered a couple different models. Once I was able to navigate them from the living room to the kitchen then through to the dining room, I knew I could control something expensive and more complex.

Only then did I invest in a Phantom 4 drone, which in and of itself has a lot of sensors to keep it from crashing into stuff. Had I not gone the helicopter route first, I would have probably wasted even more money.

If you or your child is interested in a drone to fly outdoors, start on this helicopter first. Yes, you have to fly it indoors, but that is the point. It isn’t going to break anything except itself. But once you have mastered it, you’ll have mastered the basics of flying a much more complex drone outside.

It Does Not Sound Like Donald Trump Really Hates the CIA

The media narrative is that President Trump is in an ongoing war with the intelligence community and there is major mutual distrust. Keep that media narrative in mind when you learn that President Trump just broadened the CIA’s powers to use drones to kill bad guys without the Pentagon taking over.

Under President Obama, the CIA might root out the bad guys, but they’d pass off the killing to the Pentagon. President Trump has undone that and is now letting the CIA kill the bad guys it finds.

The new authority, which hadn’t been previously disclosed, represents a significant departure from a cooperative approach that had become standard practice by the end of former President Barack Obama’s tenure: The CIA used drones and other intelligence resources to locate suspected terrorists and then the military conducted the actual strike. The U.S. drone strike that killed Taliban leader Mullah Mansour in May 2016 in Pakistan was the best example of that hybrid approach, U.S. officials said.

The Obama administration put the military in charge of pulling the trigger to promote transparency and accountability. The CIA, which operates under covert authorities, wasn’t required to disclose the number of suspected terrorists or civilian bystanders it killed in drone strikes. The Pentagon, however, must publicly report most airstrikes.

Al-Qaeda’s Number 2 Killed in Drone Strike

A U.S. drone strike in Syria on Sunday killed Abu Khayr al-Masri, the deputy to al-Qaeda’s leader, and fellow Egyptian, Ayman al-Zawahiri.  Al-Marsi was also married to a daughter of Osama bin Laden, the now-deceased founder of al-Qaeda (“the base”).

Al-Masri was born in Egypt in 1957.  He fought in the Balkans during the 1990’s and was believed to have been involved in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.  After carrying out terror attacks in Egypt in the 1990’s, he lived in Afghanistan, but fled to Iran prior to the U.S. invasion in 2001.  In 2003, he was arrested by Iranian authorities, but released in 2015 in exchange for the return of an Iranian diplomat who had been taken captive by al-Qaeda in Yemen.

After his release, al-Masri went to fight in Syria as part of the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliated organization.  His career of murder and terror was finally ended Sunday as a U.S. drone struck the car in which he was traveling, killing him.

Trump’s First Drone Strike Kills Three in Yemen

The first drone strike of the new Trump Administration is reported to have occurred in Yemen. Local security and tribal officials told the Associated Press that the two strikes on Saturday, the day after President Trump’s inauguration, killed three al-Qaeda officials. The strikes reportedly killed Abu Anis al-Abi, an area field commander for al-Qaeda, and two others who were not identified by AP.

Drone strikes in Yemen are nothing new. Standoff missile attacks by the unmanned aircraft were the Obama Administration’s weapon of choice in the War on Terror. According to Newsweek, between January 2009 and December 2016, President Obama ordered 526 drone strikes in various countries.

It was a 2011 drone attack in Yemen ordered by Obama that killed Anwar al-Awlaki, a member of al-Qaeda who was a US citizen. This attack in particular was criticized from both the right and left. Leftists have been critical of the drone war in general while many conservatives condemned the killing of an American citizen without a trial even though Awlaki was beyond the reach of the US criminal justice system.

Yemen’s role in the War on Terror goes back beyond the September 11 attacks. In October 2000, the USS Cole was attacked by al-Qaeda suicide bombers while on a refueling stop in Aden, killing 17 US sailors. The attack was one of several that foreshadowed the worst terror attack in US history.

Today, Yemen is engaged in a civil war that involves both al-Qaeda and Iran-backed Shia rebels from the Houthi tribe. A Sunni coalition led by Saudi Arabia is supporting forces loyal to President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, who is also backed by the US.

During the campaign, Trump supported drone strikes, saying, “The U.S. needs to use all means necessary to combat terrorism,” but argued that the US should not get involved in the Yemeni civil war.

Drone Under The Tree? You Want To Read This

Since when has Washington, D.C. made better decisions than your local city council?

If you’ve got a drone under the tree this year, you may want to know the rules. And more importantly, who gets to make them.

Right now, Washington is taking a very “hands-off” approach to recreational drone use, but the drone manufacturers are pushing for more federal control. That’s bad for liberty, and ultimately bad for the drone industry as a whole.

Since last June, the FAA has published a list of federal rules for operation of what it calls Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS’s) and, in August, set up a licensing procedure for commercial “drone pilots.” When you get that big box containing your drone, make sure you go here to register it with the FAA. This is actually important, because UAS’s are aircraft, and as the website reads:

You will be subject to civil and criminal penalties if you meet the criteria to register an unmanned aircraft and do not register.

Basically, if your UAS weight slightly more than half a pound, and up to 55 pounds, you need to register it with the FAA. And yes, it does cost $5. If you’re flying for fun, you can just go fly if you are 13 years old or older, and follow the UAS safety guidelines.

If you intend to fly your drone for “work” (or make money flying it by selling movie shots, etc.), then you need to become a licensed UAS pilot.  (Don’t worry, there are a whole bunch of companies out there to help you with the process–just Google “Part 107”). But that’s a whole different pot of water with its own issues that are just beginning to boil.

Who makes the rules?

I want to focus on the recreational “fly for fun” drone pilots here, because that’s where the drone manufacturers want America to be more like Europe. You see, the FAA actually exempts fly-for-fun drone pilots from Part 107 rules–they become “safety guidelines.”

  • Fly at or below 400 feet
  • Keep your UAS within sight
  • Never fly near other aircraft, especially near airports
  • Never fly over groups of people
  • Never fly over stadiums or sports events
  • Never fly near emergency response efforts such as fires
  • Never fly under the influence
  • Be aware of airspace requirements

The only “rules” for flying drones are the local ones. For example, in New York City, the parks department has designated five parks where recreational drone pilots can fly their aircraft, along with other radio-controlled airplane and helicopter hobbyists.

The issue at the moment is that neither the New York State Legislature nor the New York City Council have passed drone laws. Thus New York City drone hobbyists are left without a clear set of rules about where they can fly.

This is where the conflict has started to arise. The FAA made a set of rules, then exempted hobbyists from them–but by requiring registration of the UAS’s themselves, they’ve opened the door to more federal regulation down the road.

Drone makers want one-size-fits-all

When drones first came on the market, all the manufacturers and commercial users got together and formed the Small UAV Coalition as an industry advocacy group. The group included Google, Amazon, Intel, Verizon, along with manufacturers DJI (who make the popular Phantom drones), 3D Robotics, Parrot, and GoPro. Then last April, the four manufacturers pulled out to form the Drone Manufacturers Alliance.

Back in January, when Congress was considering the FAA reauthorization bill, drone manufacturers lobbied hard against creating onerous rules for hobbyists, so they could sell more drones. The companies considering using drones for package delivery, like Amazon, were pushing for local rules giving them more flexibility to try new services.

Since the break in April, Chinese drone manufacturers have been pushing for the federal government to standardize recreational drone rules, preempting state and local regulations, in a “one-size-fits-all” approach. Of course, that would make it easier to sell more drones, but it doesn’t make it a good idea.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Senate considered an FAA reauthorization bill that would have barred states and localities from “enact[ing] or enforc[ing] any law, regulation, or other provision… relating to the …operation…of an unmanned aircraft system.” Had that provision been enacted, federal preemption in the drone space would have been effectively universal.

Utah demonstrates why such drastic expansion of federal authority is neither warranted nor desirable. Not only are states able to deal with any truly novel dangers posed by drones, they can do so far more quickly — and in a manner more reflective of their particular local concerns and interests — than Congress or federal regulatory agencies.

Manufacturer DJI Technology has spent $290,000 so far in 2016 in lobbying efforts to block local authority to regulate drones. At least 38 states considered UAS regulations in 2016. Rhode Island HB 7511/SB 3099 gives exclusive regulatory authority on drones to the state, stripping local authorities from the ability to make their own rules. Virginia HB 412 does the same.

Loss of Local Control Is Bad For General Aviation

The FAA regulates airspace, and the standards for operating airports, but local authorities actually make the rules for airports. You can’t just take off in a private plane from your (large) back yard without first reading up on the local ordinances and laws. This is for safety, and for the peaceful enjoyment of your neighbors. Imagine if the FAA got to decide, from Washington, D.C., where every airport or landing strip could be placed?

The big problem with general aviation (and I’m a private pilot) is inconveniencing the non-flying public. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen and read about a local, private grass strip, or even a paved runway surrounded by uninhabited areas have that buffer zone sold off to developers. Then homes are built and people live there in the traffic pattern.

Then those homeowners complain about noise from the airport they knew was there when they bought their home. So they lobby the local politicians to impose strict noise abatement procedures. No problem: local pilots comply. Then some idiot from out of town breaks the rules, or buzzes someone’s house. Or some teen with a student certificate does something stupid and crashes in a neighbor’s yard.

Before you know it, the residents are up in arms to close the airport. And frequently, it gets closed. This is bad for general aviation, which needs airports (kind of a given) to thrive. But it’s still a local problem. An airport closing in Alma, Georgia won’t affect people in Tehama County, California.

Let’s say that drone manufacturers get their way and the FAA takes over all UAS regulation, stripping state and local control. That means when your neighbor goes to the FAA safety hotline to report a your drone flying over their back yard, it will be added to the list of those complaints and potentially a new rule will issue forth from 800 Independence Avenue.

Right now, the FAA will take drone complaints, but nothing is done because it’s a local issue (like all noise issues, for instance, which are passed on to local authorities). If the drone manufacturers get their way, the FAA would make all the rules, so if New York City got a lot of complaints, you might have a harder time flying your drone in Montgomery, Alabama.

That kind of centralized control is bad for general aviation–America offers the most liberty for general aviation in the world. If you question that, see how hard it is to become a general aviation pilot in Europe, or other places in the world–if they allow it at all. Local control of airports is the cornerstone of that liberty, and the pilot community vigorously protects it and self-polices.

What are drone-makers scared of?

They’re scared some large city, or an entire state, will flat-out ban recreational drones. And that will be bad for business.

It could very well happen, because it’s not without precedent. In 1977, California banned motorized skateboards. It took a huge lobbying effort and a groundswell of public support to get the ban lifted in 2015, so that the latest “hoverboards” and electric skateboards could be legal–they were under a lot of trees in 2014 and 2015.

The drone-flying community is still small. Those who want to fly a DJI Phantom 4 equipped with an HD camera as part of a filmmaking business have a vested interest in keeping the drone industry healthy so they’ll make better drones cheaper. Companies like Amazon who are looking at drone technology for package delivery have a vested interest in keeping public opinion positive. The best way to do that is to allow it to happen naturally through local government control.

The general aviation industry stalled in the early 1970’s and never really recovered. With the exception of glass cockpits and small improvements, the technology of a 1972 Cessna 172 is about the same as one you can order today. Except in 1972 a new 172 cost $14,995. Today, the same plane costs more than $200,000. Adjusted for inflation, that plane should cost no more than $87,000.

What happened? Stagnation due to litigation prevented innovation, and drove the cost up. With less airplanes, there were less new pilots because the cost to fly became too high for anyone other than commercial or military training. The FAA sets the standards for pilots (and rightly, they should) and for manufacturer safety standards. But it was the industry and pilot community that forced the FAA to introduce the Recreational Pilot Certificate. That took years.

The drone manufacturers are scared this stagnation will also happen with drones. They fundamentally misunderstand the liberty and freedom offered in America, and their strategy to pursue this one-size-fits-all lobbying effort will eventually doom the industry.

Because since when has Washington, D.C. made better decisions than your local city council? Keeping local control might be–in the short-run profit of offshore companies–bad for business, but it is very good for liberty.