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Opinion: That drone up above may not be your friend

We are too vulnerable to aerial attacks by criminals, terrorists and even enemy nations

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A drone follows a man riding a motorized surfboard in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

A drone follows a man riding a motorized surfboard in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, June 25, 2020. The UAE has banned the flying of drones in the country for recreation after Yemen’s Houthi rebels claimed a fatal drone attack on an oil facility and major airport in the country. Experts fear the United States may be vulnerable to similar drone attacks.

Jon Gambrell, Associated Press

If only we had listened to the good folks of Deer Trail, Colorado, eight years ago.

Actually, make that one good folk, Phil Steel. He’s the one, according to Time Magazine, who came up with the idea of the town selling hunting licenses to shoot drones.  

The mayor at the time, Frank Fields, told Colorado’s KDVR it might be a good idea because, at $25 a pop, the licenses could bring in some much-needed money. 

But 73% of the 181 people who cast ballots that year rejected the idea, and they also threw Fields out of office.

Pity, that; about the drones, I mean. Deer Trail’s methods might have been crude. People in town told reporters they weren’t sure a drone had ever actually flown over the place. We probably wouldn’t want bullets flying through the air and drones raining down. But Steel’s heart was way ahead of his time.

Right now, a trio of senators in Washington — Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., Bill Cassidy, R-La., and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, is working on a bipartisan billthat would tighten the criminal language around misuse of the aerial devices that are becoming more common. It’s a necessity, but it might not be enough to keep us from the type of disaster that could lie ahead. 

Those buzzing skies overhead could be full of trouble. And if they are, we probably won’t know until it’s too late. 

Back in 2014, the biggest drone problem involved either privacy violations or accidents. A triathlon runner in Australia was hit in the head by one, for example; painful, but hardly cause for calling out the military.

Today, the problems are much more serious. A report last summer inBusiness Insidertold of Mexican drug cartels using drones to attack enemies and smuggle drugs across the U.S. border. 

In the town of Aguililla, located in the state of Michoacan, people “have been reporting bomb-strapped drones flying over their homes since early this year …” the magazine reported.

You may not worry much now because that seems a long way from here, but Tom Donilon, a Distinguished Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former national security adviser, wrote recently for Foreign Affairs that things can change fast.

“Now that unmanned aerial vehicles are widely available, and easily adaptable,” he said, “the drone threat is about to come home.”

It already almost has. Two years ago, someone rigged a modified drone with a copper wire that trailed behind it. The idea likely was to land on a power substation in Pennsylvania. It crashed nearby, instead.

CNN quotedan intelligence bulletin that said the operator may have wanted a “short circuit to cause damage to transformers or distribution lines, based on the design and recovery location.”

In Foreign Affairs, Donilon said it “could have caused a short circuit and taken down the electric grid.”

He also said at least 57 drones were seen over domestic nuclear sites between 2014 and 2019. Three years ago, Gatwick Airport in London was forced to close for 36 hours because of drones nearby, and the FAA in this country regularly has to deal with the pesky things around airports. These may be the result of people just trying to be cute. Or maybe not. It’s hard to tell, just as it’s hard to trace where the things come from.

Also, the U.S. military uses them to spy on and attack enemies, as do more than 100 nations and nonstate belligerents, including terrorists. It’s not far-fetched to believe the nation’s enemies would want to use them on our cities, too.

These are the dark side of drones. They have their beneficial side, too. They can help farmers tend crops, help rescuers find someone who is lost, and they hold out the promise of someday soon making regular package deliveries to your door.

Which brings me back to Washington and those senators. If all they do is write a bill that identifies more crimes and attaches more penalties, it won’t help much. Donilon wrote a list of suggestions about that.

First, he said, private business and government should collaborate on rules for the construction of drones, including security measures. The FAA already requires them to send out information that identifies them and their location.

Next, the law should require that drones be equipped with geofencing — a concept that sets perimeters around areas (power stations, for example) in which drones will not be operable. 

He would take drone regulation away from the FAA and give it to Homeland Security, and he would establish federal laws to govern their use, rather than a patchwork of state laws — perhaps not a popular suggestion in today’s anti-Washington climate.

Finally, he said the government should build a counter-drone network, with systems in place at strategic points to quickly shoot aggressive drones out of the sky.

I like that. You could call it the Deer Trail defense system.