Drone Sabotage on Saudi Pipeline Facility Raises Concerns

The Saudi Press Agency announced on 5/14/2019 between 6-6:30 AM “two pump stations on the East-West pipeline were attacked by armed drones which caused a fire and minor damage to Pump Station No. 8. The fire has since been contained. The pipeline transports Saudi oil from the Eastern Province to Yanbu port. Saudi Aramco has taken all necessary measures and temporarily shut down the pipeline to evaluate its condition. The company is working on restoring the pump station prior to resuming operations.” Another announcement stated these pump stations were in the Dawadmi and Afif Governorates in the Riyadh Region. The Saudi Press Agency declared this is an “act of terrorism and sabotage” and “that it is important for us to face terrorist entities, including the Houthi militias in Yemen that are backed by Iran.”

A military source told Almasirah that the Yemeni Army carried out the attacks against the Saudis using seven drones. A previous Almasirah announcement indicated the attacks were “by booby-trapped drones[.]”

Saudi Aramco, the company that runs the pipeline, stated there were no injuries or fatalities reported and that “oil and gas supplies have not been impacted as a result of this incident.”

Is this type of attack new? No. Drones have been armed and used in threatening ways before.

One instance was when there was the attack on President Maduro of Venezuela where at least one of the drones was caught on camera when it exploded. ISIS has also used drones by dropping a bomb on a Syrian ammo dump and filmed the entire firework show.

Drones have also been used in an attack-method manner to actually prevent harm and destruction by countering in the air incendiary kites and balloons which Palestinians have flown towards Israeli areas to start fires. The Israelis use small first-person-view (FPV) racer drones to kamikaze into the fire kites. Here is footage of the Israeli drones ramming into the Palestinian fire kites.

With the growing use of unmanned aircraft as low cost solutions for sabotage and terrorism, the foremost questions are: (1) How are we going to stay safe and protect ourselves and our infrastructure from those with harmful intents using drones? (2) What can airports or critical infrastructure do if they have a problematic drone or drones flying around?

Ever since we witnessed the Gatwick airport incident where drone sightings lead to repeated closures of the airport, causing massive problems and now with this pumping station incident, many are looking into counter-drone technology.

Providentially, last week the Federal Aviation Administration thought it would be wise to provide additional information to airports in evaluating, demonstrating, or installing UAS detection systems at airports which includes a frequently asked questions document.

The FAA announced the FAA does not support the use of counter-drone systems “by any entities other than the federal departments with explicit statutory authority to use this technology.” The reason for this is many counter-drone systems will violate federal law, and only a handful of federal agencies have approval to exercise some counter-drone equipment.

Setting that aside, the frequently asked questions document raised two practical issues with a counter-drone response: the credibility of the sighting, and the criteria deserving a response.

How do you figure out the credibility of the drone sighting? Was the initial detection verified by visual identification? How do you know if this drone is illegal or flying legally under an FAA-given approval for a client? It can be very difficult to distinguish between a legal flight and a malicious flight just by spotting a drone flying in the sky.

So let’s say you detect there is a drone flying. What is the criteria for determining if an incident is worthy of receiving a counter-drone response? Is there a line drawn in the sand somewhere which will evoke an immediate response?

Any response has to be interwoven into the already well-established, understood, and practiced response plans without introducing some undesirable safety and efficiency impacts. This has to be communicated and coordinated among the many stakeholders. This has NOT been accomplished but the FAA is currently working on it with other federal agencies. Thankfully, the FAA is compiling a checklist of planning factors to help airports, and in the meantime has released a document on the technical considerations for unmanned aircraft detection that airports and critical infrastructure entities would do well to understand. If you dive into the technical considerations document, you’ll notice that each type of counter-drone technology has its own unique problems and benefits.

In conclusion, many great benefits have been actualized with drones which far outweigh the destructive uses we are witnessing. As we see the emergence of this new threat, we should remind ourselves that the use of new technology for harm is not a new concept and should not evoke a knee-jerk response towards the technology itself, but towards the bad wielding it. A custom-tailored solution to each location, entity, and counter-drone technology will be required, so we can all enjoy the many benefits of drones while still being protected.

Proposed Drone Regulations Allow Waiverless Flying Over-People and Night Operations

The Department of Transportation made three major announcements that will be an advancement for the commercial drone industry: (1) proposed regulations to allow drone operators to fly over people as well as at night WITHOUT a waiver or an exemption, (2) an advanced notice of proposed rule making asking for recommendations on countering problematic drones affecting safety and security, and (3) the awarding of three contracts to commercial service entities to develop technology to provide flight planning, communications, separation, and weather services for drones under 400ft.

Proposed Regulations for Relaxing the Prohibition on Operations Over People and Night Operations.

The commercial drone industry has been greatly hampered because Part 107 prohibits the flying over non-participating people and also prohibits operations at night.  The only way around these prohibitions is to obtain a waiver or an exemption. Night waivers are attainable but over people waiver application denial rates are around 99%.  Yikes.

Operations over people is significant because not only are those operations valuable within line of sight, they become extremely valuable when you want to fly beyond line of sight. Why? Generally, you can’t really figure out if you are flying over people when you are beyond line of sight because of just that – it’s beyond your line of sight – so you just must assume so.

Keep in mind that this is not just night and over people being changed. Part 107 is being “refreshed” to make things better. For example, the current 107 says you must show require documentation to FAA inspectors, but the proposed regulation is saying you have to present required documentation also to a National Transportation Safety Board representative; any federal, state, or local law enforcement officer; or a representative of the Transportation Security Administration.

The major highlights of the proposed regulations are:

  • Requires you to present documentation to FAA, TSA, law enforcement, or NTSB when requested. But as I pointed out in the previous article, I don’t think law enforcement is currently adequately trained to handle to this capability.
  • You can operate over non-participating people provided your operation meets the requirements of at least one of the operational categories. There will be three categories of aircraft which each have their corresponding benefits:
    • Category 1. 0.55 pound (250 grams) and under aircraft which can fly over people without any design standards, manufacturer does not have to prove anything to the FAA, and no operational restrictions other than just Part 107.
    • Category 2. No operational restriction aircraft. Weighs more than 0.55 pounds and:
      • Has been satisfactorily demonstrated to the FAA by the manufacturer they are below the Category 2 injury threshold,
      • No exposed rotating parts that could lacerate human skin, and
      • No FAA-identified safety defect.
    • Category 3. Operational Restricted Aircraft. Aircraft which:
      • Have been satisfactorily demonstrated to the FAA by the manufacturer they are below the Category 3 injury threshold,
      • No exposed rotating parts that could lacerate human skin, and
      • Because of its FAA identified safety defect, is required to have operational mitigations requiring the pilot to (1) not fly over any open-air assembly of people, (2) fly only over a closed or restricted access site with everyone on the site being notified, and (3) does not maintain sustained flight over the human being (only briefly transiting).
  • Even though you can operate over people with category 2 and 3 aircraft, you cannot operate over people in a moving vehicle.
  • The initial knowledge exam will cover operations at night.
  • Instead of doing a recurrent knowledge exam at a testing center, you can do recurrent training online instead. Recurrent knowledge testing currently does not test on weather, aircraft loading, physiological effects of drugs & alcohol, etc. while recurrent training would test you on those topics.

So When Will This Go Into Effect?

Don’t get too excited. These are proposed regulations. On average, you are looking at around 1.5 years until a notice of proposed rulemaking becomes a final regulation you can operate under. This is just an average of how long the rulemaking process takes. There are all these legal requirements the government has to comply with when creating regulations which bogs things down. Plus, the proposal said, the FAA does not plan on publishing the final rule for operations over people AND night operations until the remote identification rulemaking is finalized. The remote identification rulemaking has not been published yet. That’s still working its way through the system. Don’t confuse that with the advance notice of proposed rulemaking which was also announced.

Let that sink in. The FAA has to publish their remote ID NPRM and THEN it will go into affect about 1.5-2 years later. That has not even been done. Then they can publish the final over people and night regulations. For the time being, we’ll still be operating under waivers. If you need help obtain a waiver, contact me.

Seeking Recommendations on Managing Problematic Drones

The DOT is planning on issuing an advance notice of proposed rulemaking. “An advance notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPRM) tells the public that FAA is considering an area for rulemaking and requests written comments on the appropriate scope of the rulemaking or on specific topics.” Why is this advance notice of proposed rulemaking so great? It gives you, the public, an opportunity to provide recommendations to the FAA to influence their future rulemaking.  

We all heard about the recent Gatwick situation. It was reported that a drone prompted numerous shutdowns of the major airport in England. What really happened? I don’t know. But I do know it prompted everyone to start talking about countering problematic drones. There were a lot of things reported by the media. As time went on, some questioned the reports. DJI reported, “To date, none of these reports have been confirmed, and there is no proof that any of these alleged incidents occurred. Despite the lack of evidence, new sightings have been reported at more airports, raising the prospect that new reports are being spurred by publicity from past incidents.”

Regardless of whichever side you are on, this DOT advance notice of proposed rulemaking is requesting you to provide comments on 26 questions ranging from required minimum stand-off distances for unmanned aircraft to establishing design requirements for systems critical to safety of flight during beyond visual line of sight operations. This is the perfect forum to raise any issues.

Unmanned Aircraft Systems Traffic Management Systems Pilot Project Awarded

The UAS UTM Pilot Project (UPP) contracts were awarded to:

  • Nevada UAS Test Site Smart Silver State
  • Northern Plains Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Site
  • Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership

Don’t confuse the UPP with the IPP which is the Integration Pilot Program. Here is a comparison between the UPP and IPP. The UPP, which was originally initiated by NASA but subsequently became a major joint effort between the FAA and NASA, “is intended to develop and demonstrate a traffic management system to safely integrate drone flights within the nation’s airspace system.”


The DOT is continuing the drone integration efforts by changing the regulations to be more pro-business while wisely seeking input on how to handle problematic drones.  The over people regulations and the UPP will be beneficial in helping build the foundation towards more beyond visual line of sight operations in the future. While these regulations won’t be coming into effect immediately, we can start preparing now to position ourselves for more unrestricted operations in the future.  

Counter-Drone Law & Technology: We Need a Comprehensive Game Plan.

The Gatwick Airport drone incident has caused us to see the need for counter-drone technology, but while most commentary is focusing on only short-term issues and solutions (“Just shoot it down”), what is not being recognized is the need for a complete end-to-end solution which would involve training law enforcement and prosecutors to arrest and prosecute these types of events to a successful conviction.

Gatwick Airport, which is just south of London, has been shut down repeatedly by numerous sightings of drones flying over the airfield. This has caused a major disruption not only to the passengers at the airport, but also at other connecting airports.

You might have thought, “Why can’t they just shoot it down?” or “Don’t we have some technology that can prevent this? There are different types of counter-drone technology out there. You can classify these technologies typically into two categories: (1) detectors and (2) defenders.  Detectors do just that, detect drones using different methods (radar, radio waves, etc.). Defenders disrupt or destroy the unmanned aircraft using all sorts of creative technology (shotgun shells, jammers, GPS signal spoofers, lasers, and even trained eagles.) Each of the types of technology has a different price tag and effectiveness for different types of scenarios.

Fundamental to understanding the counter-drone technology is a knowledge of law­­, for it is within the law that the technology is used. They cannot be separated. In the United States, there are anti-jamming laws and anti-GPS-spoofing laws.  It is illegal to damage or destroy an aircraft or hack into a drone.  If that was not enough, you potentially open yourself to extra lawsuit liability from plaintiff attorneys whose clients might have been hurt because of the illegal operation.

The liability is because the operation of the technology could cause problems for other people like those using airports. In October 2016, the FAA sent out a letter to airports regarding uncoordinated counter-drone technology, “Unauthorized [drone] detection and counter measure deployments [at airports] can create a host of problems, such as electromagnetic and Radio Frequency (RF) interference affecting safety of flight and air traffic management issues.”

The FAA did some counter-drone research and published in July 2018 a letter which discussed the study:

  • Airport environments have numerous sources of potential radio interference which makes drones hard to detect.
  • “A high level of manpower is required to operate equipment and discern false positives such as when a detection system may falsely identify another moving object as a [drone].”
  • “The primary factor in determining the feasibility of installing a permanent system at an airport is the number of sensors needed to achieve the desired airspace coverage.” Different sensors have unique characteristics, requirements, and coverage distances.
  • Due to the nature of airports being operated by many entities (TSA, FBOs, airport management, etc.) it might be hard to acquire and deploy.
  • Due to the rapidly developing counter-drone technology, it becomes obsolete upon installation.

Basically, it’s not an easy, or cheap, thing to try to stop a drone near an airport.

But can anyone do anything to stop these drones? Yes, multiple federal laws have been passed within the last two years to give counter-drone use authority to Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, United States Coast Guard, Department of Energy, and Department of Defense. But even with these new laws, there will still be a need to determine safe and effective rules of engagement regarding these bad drones. DHS and DOJ will be working on this quickly in light of recent event.

So let’s say you have the technology and track down the bad guy, now what? The next two logical steps are arrest and prosecute. But these two steps raise all sorts of issues that even lawyers have a hard time wrestling with. I’ve talked to law enforcement officers who wondered “What in the world am I supposed to do if I catch the bad guy?” The situation is similar to a dog that barks and runs after a car; when it catches the car, it doesn’t really know what to do next.  If you arrest under some state law that was created to stop the drone problem, you run into unlawful arrest and preemption problems. If you think federal law is being violated, are you as a state or local law enforcement officer within your jurisdiction to arrest them?

Assuming you catch the bad guy and turn over the case to a prosecutor, does the state or federal prosecutor even know what to do with this bad guy? The FAA sends out letters of investigation but has historically prosecuted very few individuals or companies flying drones. The U.S. Government Accountability Office May 2018 report listed a total 49 legal enforcement actions from the FAA from June 7, 2007 to May 2, 2018. Department of Transportation’s Inspector General’s Office has done some investigations but overall prosecutions are rare.

Here is what we need – a long-term vision of detecting, defending, and prosecuting the bad drone actors all the way to a successful conviction.

This end goal will help us make decisions going forward. For example, drones do have all sorts of data on them that can be used by law enforcement for tracking down the bad guy and prosecuting them. David Kovar has a presentation on drone data forensics and the National Institute of Standards and Technology even created a database of forensic images of many popular drones to help law enforcement. We would shy away from destructive defenders and try to capture the drone intact so we can try and extract any forensic data from it to lead to an arrest and prosecution.

This end goal of trying to obtain successful convictions would also mean we need appropriate training for law enforcement officers and prosecutors regarding potential problems and solutions that can arise during arrest and prosecution.

In the end, we want only the bad guy to be uncertain and indecisive – not law enforcement.

Uber’s Drone Delivery Problems (Law & Economics)

The Wall Street Journal reported recently that Uber put up a job posting for an executive position at UberExpress, the drone delivery operation within the UberEats food delivery unit, to help get the drones up and running sometime in 2019, with commercial drone delivery of food planned in multiple locations by 2021. This isn’t the first as other companies have announced their interest or plans in offering drone delivery services of which Amazon is the most popular. (I previously wrote an in-depth article on Amazon’s legal problems.To keep things in context, this was a job posting to try and hire someone for an executive position, not the layout of an integration plan for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

The need for an executive makes sense since Uber is currently a partner with the City of San Diego, which is one of 10 recent Department of Transportation’s Drone Integration Pilot Program winners. Furthermore, the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 told the FAA to update the existing regulations, originally designed for manned aircraft, to address under 55-pound drone delivery. Regardless of these two beneficial events, there are some major hurdles that UberExpress will face to establish a commercial food drone delivery business: the law and the economics.

1. The Law.

UberExpress is going to face issues with the federal government as well as the states that the commercial drone delivery services will be offered in. On top of that, some counties, cities, and towns have created laws that could affect the operations as well. For one given flight, you could have federal, state, county, and city laws applying to the flight, some which could even be contradicting each other!

From a federal government standpoint, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is going to be the biggest problem. (Other federal agencies will affect operations such as Department of Transportation, Federal Communications Commission, etc.) The FAA has two ways of currently allowing companies to get airborne legally: (1) Part 107 and (2) through the rest of the Federal Aviation Regulations while getting special regulatory approvals to operate under alternative restrictions. Yes, the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 is trying to make things easier, but the rulemaking process takes time (around 2.5 years from notice of proposed rulemaking to final rule taking effect).

Both of these methods have problems.

Part 107 limits the aircraft to the visual line of sight of the pilot flying the drone and you cannot fly over people unless you have a waiver to do so. Over people waiver approvals have around a 99% rejection rate from the FAA.

Yikes. On top of that, it is regulatory prohibited to obtain a Part 107 waiver to fly beyond line of sight to make a delivery of other people’s property!

The other method of operating is under all of the rest of the Federal Aviation Regulations, that were originally designed for manned aviation, which is problematic because you have to go through and identify all the problem regulations you cannot easily comply with and then ask for an exemption from the FAA to fly under alternative restrictions. This will be extremely legal and time-intensive. This method at least offers the ability to fly beyond-line-of-sight of the pilot, which allows one delivery drone to cover a greater area, as opposed to Part 107 which is just line-of-sight. The exemption method will still have issues with flying over people, avoiding other aircraft, etc. which will all have to be addressed during the exemption process.

From a state and local legal standpoint, UberExpress will be like water and take the path of least resistance -but they have to find it first. A good amount of effort will go into just identifying which geographical locations would have the least amount of legal headaches and/or if there is a need to change the law via lobbying or through a lawsuit. Regarding lawsuits, while the law is very clear that aviation is regulated only by the federal government, it can be time consuming and costly to try and get a court ruling in your favor. But why fight it out with lobbying and lawsuits when some states have wisely created laws that prevent local governments from creating any drone laws. Florida has a drone law that prevents local governments from creating laws “relating to the design, manufacture, testing, maintenance, licensing, registration, certification, or operation of an unmanned aircraft system[.]”

2. The Economics

Here are two important points regarding using drones for delivery: 1) law and safety drive the economics of the aviation industry and 2) operational possibility does not equal operational profitability.

The FAA is a safety organization. They are focused on just that. I remember being on the phone one time with an FAA employee in D.C. who emphatically told me, “The FAA is not interested in your business. We only care about safety.” Businesses will do a balancing test to see if the additional levels of safety are really worth the extra costs for the safety increase while the FAA it is mostly just doing a safety analysis. A recent National Academies of Science report which exposed many of the problems inside the FAA stated, “operation of UAS has many advantages and may improve the quality of life for people around the world. Avoiding risk entirely by setting the safety target too high creates imbalanced risk decisions and can degrade overall safety and quality of life.” The FAA has a very high target for safety……and does not care about your business.

Setting aside the FAA’s heavy focus on safety, the regulations limit your operational capability which means potentially higher infrastructure/operational costs. Part 107 can only allow flights to be flown within line of sight. Even assuming you tried to initially get something going under Part 107, the line of sight issue (let’s just say you can see the aircraft 1 mile out) will limit the amount of surface area you can cover so you’ll need more aircraft….and pilots….and maintenance which means more overhead costs. Obtaining an exemption to fly beyond line of sight package delivery is the best option but will be time consuming and legal intensive initially which means those operations will not be happening anytime soon.

On top of the regulations limiting operations, they also increase your cost of operations. You have to have certified pilots, aircraft, maintenance schedules, etc. that need to be all operated according to aviation standards or some sort of “flavor” of those standards.

While there are many examples on the news showing the possibility of drone delivery, I think the early adopters of profitable delivery will be situations where there are delivery of items that are of a low payload weight and the cost of an alternative delivery method is unavailable or costly. A hamburger with fries will be a low payload weight but is the extra cost of drone delivery worth it to you when the next best alternative is UberEats or some other food delivery service? If cost is not a factor and availability is what you desire (little time to wait or you are in a hard to get to area), then this could be useful.

But why stop with food? UberExpress has the opportunity to expand and provide fast delivery for other low weight items where availability is an issue, such as medicines or blood to patients with time-sensitive problems.


UberExpress will be facing some regulatory challenges as they seek to integrate. As they navigate the constantly evolving area known as “drone law,” they will need to build out operations to benefit from large economies of scale to drive down the operational costs to where the cost of service will be comparable to other alternative methods of delivery already available that have been made efficient through years of experience.

Do you think this can or cannot be done? Would you as a consumer be willing to pay more for your food or other items to be delivered by drones quickly?