The Ultra Music Festival, an annual Electronic Music Festival held in South Florida has become ground zero for conversations of jamming signals being used to interfere with the flights of Small Unmanned Aerial Systems, sUAS, or more commonly referred to as drones.
Thousands of drones are sold each year around Christmas time, and the Federal Aviation Administration estimates over 400,000 commercial sUAS’s by 2020 to be flying in our airspace. With all of these drones come the concern of privacy, and even terrorist attack.
Back in 2018, a suspected drone operator strapped explosives to a small unmanned aircraft, and attempted to assassinate embattled President and Dictator Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela.
With the relative lax regulation on UAS in the United States, and their clear and present dangers posed, it was only a matter of time before companies began finding creative and innovative ways to combat them.
DJI, the world’s top drone manufacturer and seller began by creating NFZs or No Fly Zones across their systems to ensure drones stay away from sensitive areas such as Washington DC, nuclear power plants, and other high manned air traffic areas. Coupled with this there are now regular TRFs in the US aimed at preventing drone traffic. TFRs, Temporary Flight Restrictions, are areas where air traffic is not allowed for extended or short amounts of time. The most notable TFR’s among the drone community are ones placed around sporting events each weekend such as MLB games, NFL games, and even some NCAA outings.
However, even with all of these precautions, some have decided to take matters into their own hands. Anti-drone devices, drone killer nets, and yes even signal jammers have all been the result of individuals and companies who want to keep drones away.
This year, at the Ultra Music Festival, a Commercial UAS company was hired to take professional still and video imagery from a drone by the Music Festival. However, the unnamed company stated they experienced heavy interference issues with both their DJI Inspire 2 and Alta 8 aircraft while in flight. At this time, it does not appear there was a TFR for the area, at least from records provided by the FAA for the dates of the festival.
It has come to light now that Los Angeles based Vigilant Drone Defense, Inc.
was at the music festival this year to demonstrate the use of C-UAS(counter unmanned aerial systems) technology. It is still unclear who this demonstration was for at this time but speculation has been the Miami Police Department accepted a demonstration invitation from Vigilant Drone Defense, not knowing of the FCC rules and law regarding signal jammers.
Regardless, the company boasts they were able to successfully take control of 61 drones at the festival this year by jamming their signals mid flight in order to keep them away from the festival area.
Here’s the problem.
Vigilant Drone Defense, Inc, does not appear to hold a Part 107 Remote Pilot in Command Certificate as issued by the FAA for the commercial operation of UAS, and they do not appear to hold a waiver for the operation of multiple aircraft at the same time, which is a constraint of 14 CFR Part 107.35 Operation of Multiple Aircraft.
The larger problem here is the FAA has explicitly stated UAS are aircraft operating within the National Airspace, and are not to be interfered with during flight due to potential risks associated with such actions.
When most think of drones they more than likely think of the small toy drones such as the DJI Spark or Phantom series. If one fell from the air while flying it does hold the potential to cause harm, but more than likely would not result in a death. However, what about the DJI Inspire 2 or the Alta 8? These drones are significantly heavier, with larger propellers, and larger batteries which present a risk of fire if punctured.
One of the largest drones on the market today, the DJI M600 weighs an impressive 33 pounds when fully loaded. If it fell from just 100 feet while hovering it would impact the ground, or a person, at nearly 55 miles per hour, more than enough to be fatal.
Signal jamming systems are also a violation of Federal Law as per the Federal Communications Commission’s Jamming Prohibition. The FCC states very clearly it is illegal to due exactly what Vigilant Drone Defense, Inc. did at this year’s Ultra Music Festival.
From the FCC’s Website on Signal Jamming technology:
“The use of "cell jammers" or similar devices designed to intentionally block, jam, or interfere with authorized radio communications (signal blockers, GPS jammers, or text stoppers, etc.) is a violation of federal law.
Also, it is unlawful to advertise, sell, distribute, or otherwise market these devices to consumers in the United States.
These devices pose serious risks to critical public safety communications, and can prevent you and others from making 9-1-1 and other emergency calls. Jammers can also interfere with law enforcement communications.
Operation of a jammer in the United States may subject you to substantial monetary penalties, seizure of the unlawful equipment, and criminal sanctions including imprisonment.”
Not only this, but use of such equipment has been reserved for those with radio operator licenses, and the Department of Homeland Security. These C-UAS systems also hold potential to effect cell phones which could prevent people from making 9-1-1 calls, and may even have the potential to effect low flying aircraft’s navigation equipment. The fact of the matter is that we just don’t know what these C-UAS systems are capable of yet.
This offense is a danger to us all. UAS are protected under 18 USC 32 and interfering with their operation poses safety risks for us all.
Unmanned Aircraft in the US are still relatively new, and many C-UAS companies have capitalized on the fears associated drones.
There is a way to protect our events, and guests at festivals, sporting events, and other large gatherings, but interfering with the legal operation of UAS is not the way. Counter UAS technology, just like a drone, hold a dangerous potential to due more harm than good when in the wrong hands. Strong enforcement by the FCC is the only answer to keep these dangerous jamming devices out of the hands of the general public, and only in the hands of those who are tasked by the DHS and local authorities to use them for their designed purposes.