Lawmakers attempting to tackle drone regulation are struggling to catch up, as Amazon.com moves ahead with testing commercial drones, and local law enforcement clamors for federal direction on how to regulate all private drone use.
At a House Homeland Security subcommittee hearing on Wednesday, several experts raised the alarm there could be serious consequences because no one federal agency is clearly in charge of developing a universal strategy to regulate and enforce laws against drones.
“It’s hard to find out who is in charge of what that strategy would be. Is it the FAA or is it Homeland Security or is it someone else?” Rep. Scott Perry, chairman of the Oversight and Management Efficiency Subcommittee, told CNN.
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CNN asked several agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security and the National Security Council, which is coordinating the federal effort. So far none has responded to CNN, other than to refer the question to yet another agency.
Richard Beary, head of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, asked the panel of lawmakers to figure out who is in charge, and quickly. He said police departments across the country are looking for clear guidelines on what will be done to protect against potential threats, adding the “concerns are real. “
“There’s nothing to stop the criminal element from purchasing a [drone] and using it to cause localized or catastrophic damage,” Beary said.
He called his testimony a cry for help.
“The lack of clear guidance and best practices has led to confusion among the law enforcement community when they are dealing with these,” Beary said. “Almost every critical situation now, there are drones flying over our officers and interfering with our helicopters when we are trying to deal with these things.”
The concerns go beyond interfering with police investigations, though.
Todd Humphreys, an expert in drone technology and an engineer with the University of Texas at Austin, said the wide availability of drones and their ease of use make them easy targets for manipulation.
“The distressing truth is that even consumer-grade drones can be rigged to carry out potent attacks,” he said.
In 2011, federal authorities foiled a plot hatched in Boston by a man who planned to fill drones with explosives and fly them into the Pentagon and the U.S. Capitol. Overseas, several recent drone flyovers have raised alarm bells as sensitive sites are suddenly within reach of anyone with access to the commercially available devices.
In France, reports say at least seven nuclear plants have reported flyovers. In Germany, a drone flew over and crash landed just feet from German Chancellor Angela Merkel at a September 2013 campaign event.
“When you can fly an unmanned vehicle right next to a head of state, and no one knows it’s coming, and nobody is aware where it’s coming from or what’s on board, certainly that’s a national security threat,” Perry said.
Perry said his priority is determining who is in charge, and who is responsible for coming up with a comprehensive strategy to safely intercept rogue drones.
“I don’t think that’s been weeded out and that’s part of the issue,” he said.
The Department of Homeland Security was invited to testify at the subcommittee hearing, but declined the invitation, Perry said.