When the city of Santa Clara, Calif., passed an ordinance to protect its citizens from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), it wasn’t aimed at defending privacy rights like so many others. City officials were looking at drones as potential delivery vehicles for destruction and accidental injury.
With popular venues like Levi's Stadium, home of the 2016 Super Bowl, in their backyard, city officials wanted to take proactive steps to reduce what they see as the credible risks posed by UAVs in their territory.
Jennifer Yamaguma, public communications manager for the city of Santa Clara, said the ordinance went into effect Sept. 17 and represents a significant step toward better ensuring the public’s safety at the many large events hosted throughout the city.
Though the city's spokesperson said no threats of violence have been made, drones over the busy stadium have been documented in the past.
“Because drones do pose a threat to public safety, that was the catalyst that brought forward this ordinance to the council,” Yamaguma said. “This is an object that can really lead to a real threat.”
As it stands, the ordinance prohibits use of UAVs over and within a half-mile of Levi's Stadium at any time, during sporting events at Santa Clara University, as well as other large public events at city parks and public facilities. Yamaguma said the Santa Clara Police Department will be responding to reports of drone operators flying in restricted areas.
Concern regarding drones as destructive tools has long been a subject on the minds of security experts across the country who are quick to point out the potential for misuse of the popular technology.
Proposed legislation at the national level, House Bill 1646, takes aim at the issue and calls for the Department of Homeland Security to study the destructive capabilities of commercially available drones for the purpose of policy and protocol development.
Counterterrorism expert Michael O’Neil, who also is CEO of New York-based MSA Security, said that as drones become more mainstream, the potential for them to be used as weapons increases. While he said most users are law-abiding citizens who just don’t know the rules, there are those who will misuse them as well.
In addition to serving as a 22-year veteran of the New York City Police Department, O’Neil was the first commanding officer of the department’s counterterrorism division following 9/11.
From his perspective, dispersal devices have always been a legitimate security concern. Before the small and nimble hobby drones came on the scene, O’Neil said law enforcement and the private security industry looked at remote-controlled crop dusting planes as potential threats -- a focus that has shifted to UAVs.
“Drones really are a concern because they’re easy to obtain, they’re not hard to operate, they’re getting bigger and better, and they are actually capable of carrying payloads,” he said. “In the terrorism world, there has always been a concern with aerial dispersal devices. Before the evolution of drones, we were concerned about remote-controlled aircraft, particularly the commercial-grade ones…”
Drones also allow for threats to gain access to typically secured targets, said McNeil. In 2013, German Chancellor Angela Merkel had a hobby drone land nearly at her feet while she spoke at a political rally. In May 2015, a consumer-grade drone bypassed White House safeguards and forced a lockdown.
“It’s the back and forth you always have in security when you’re dealing with terrorism or crime. The evolution of technology, you don’t want to stop that, it’s a great thing for society," he said. "But as things evolve, you have to see, could this be used as a weapon or to hurt people? And law enforcement and security have to respond appropriately."
O’Neil admits that law enforcement agencies and security companies face challenges as far as how to handle the ever-prevalent and evolving technology in the field. He said he supports Santa Clara's proactive approach and believes more cities and states should follow suit with stricter guidelines for users.
The need to control drones and the areas they hover over has created more than just rules and regulations. It has also created a host of companies focused on detecting and preventing UAVs in certain airspaces.
One such company is Washington, D.C.-based DroneShield.
A company representative who asked to remain unnamed said the distinctive noises that drones make is the most effective way to detect them.
“They really don’t sound like anything else,” he said. “We’re able to compare those sounds to a database of drone signatures that we have and if we find a match, we issue an alert.”
Other detection systems on the market use the radio frequencies to detect drones in set areas.
The DroneShield representative said they have been contacted by many companies and government agencies about their detection technology, but he was not able to elaborate on who they were or how the systems were being deployed.
As for getting rid of a potentially dangerous drone, the perfect technology is yet to be developed. While there are a few options, the representative said not all of them are legal.
“There are lots of technologies that could [disable a drone], the problem is just about all of them are illegal,” the representative said. “Jamming sounds pretty attractive, but it’s highly illegal in the United States, and nobody can do it, nowhere, no how.”