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The Taming of the Drones

Gadget ShowThe French have lately been plagued by drone aircraft flying over nuclear energy facilities – and a plague it is, too, for a country that has suffered a traumatic terrorist attack recently. We’ll let the French deal with the issue with their usual je ne sais quoi, as we’re sure they will.

But the various stories did make me wonder about the American response – not to the French situation, but to the prospect of drones buzzing American facilities. As far as I know, this hasn’t happened – and I think we would know – but it’s fair to say that it would make people very nervous, just as it has done in France.

Still, what one can do is maintain a little perspective. I was struck in this regard by comments by British engineer John Large because of its maximalist idiocy:

According to Large, of consulting engineers Large & Associates, based in London, who was commissioned by Greenpeace France to evaluate and report on the spate of flyovers, the “unacceptable” risk posed by a terrorist drone attack means that many of Europe’s nuclear power stations – including the majority of those in France – should be shut down.

But this is due to one factor only: drones have been seen there (well, and Greenpeace is a potent second factor). If drones were seen around gasworks, near trains carrying liquefied natural gas through small towns, or at any switchyard, would we stop all such activity? There are YouTube videos of a drone with machine gun mounts and a plastic explosive payload blowing up a car. Do we ban driving?

To be honest, the damage a drone could do to a nuclear facility would be to the physical plant rather then hardened structures such as the containment chamber or backup generator building, but just doing that much carries a decided fear factor. Still, that’s all. One can imagine far more wreckage – and a frightening toll in human life – from other potential targets.

Drone fly-overs cross from an industrial concern to a government and military issue. No industrial facility is itself a military installation, but an attack on one will bring a response from the military. Terrorists have the same status as foreign combatants and become a federal and military issue.* And then there’s the government.

The Federal Aviation Administration calls drones unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).

The proposed rule would require an operator to maintain visual line of sight of a small UAS. The rule would allow, but not require, an operator to work with a visual observer who would maintain constant visual contact with the aircraft. The operator would still need to be able to see the UAS with unaided vision (except for glasses). The FAA is asking for comments on whether the rules should permit operations beyond line of sight, and if so, what the appropriate limits should be.

The FAA wants to allow maximum flexibility in drone use, which is reflected here, but includes this, too:

Operators must stay out of airport flight paths and restricted airspace areas, and obey any FAA Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs).

Domestic, or should I say domesticated, drones are used for all kinds of helpful purposes. Nuclear facilities use them to help with maintenance, for example, and delivery companies such as Federal Express have looked into their potential. 

So laying down markers for the legitimate use of drones is important. The FAA’s proposed rules also provide ways to prosecute illegitimate uses of drones. Even if drones have no means to do anything truly dire at a nuclear energy plant, they could still make a mess and inflame the public. That has to be taken seriously – and it is.

* I believe a similar approach is what the French are now considering. French nuclear plants are already government operations, so there are differences in their operation that I can’t speak to.

NEI’s Director – Security Dave Kline helped considerably with this post.


Joris van Dorp said…
What's to stop anyone from flying a drone over a packed football stadium and exploding a payload of Semtex and shrapnel into the audience? To ignore that risk in favor of speculating how a drone could somehow penetrate yards of reinforced concrete to cause mayhem at a nuclear planet is laughable, and betrays the fact that the anti-nuclear lobby is (yet again) merely wasting our time with their contrived bogus scare stories. It shows that they aren't concerned about our safety at all.

jimwg said…
True -- but the trick here not that antis know they're not even remotely creating a threat but to play on the public IGNORANCE that there is one to boost FUD this way -- and lord, it works! Never underestimate the public cluelessness about the facts about nuclear power. That's their power: an undereducated public.

James Greenidge
Queens NY

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