Story by A1C Michael Murphy on 04/04/2019In October 2018, Gatwick Airport in London reached a milestone with more than four million passengers in a month. Just two months later, though, flights were cancelled for three straight days, stranding thousands of passengers prompting British military involvement.
What caused the disruption? A small unmanned aerial system -- or sUAS, or more commonly called a "drone" -- flying in restricted airspace without coordination from air traffic control.
"We could potentially have a similar scenario here at JBA," said Lt. Col. Jonathan Bell, commander of the 11th Security Forces Squadron here. "That's a big deal when you think of the aircraft that transit this base."
Looking to counter a potential problem, Bell began researching avenues available for security forces to enhance base defense. In September, a small team of JBA defenders traveled to White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, to test a new directed-energy system designed to counter sUAS. That trip resulted in a JBA defender becoming the first Airman to shoot down a drone with a laser.
"Our defenders went out there and gave feedback to the science and tech community on how to operationally employ those systems," Bell said.
Bell then decided to invite officials from Air Force Special Operations Command to JBA to provide further training on sUAS systems, which they did at the end of January.
"We see a lot of potential benefits to employing these small UAS into a variety of routines that our defenders experience here," Bell said. "The training was vital to get us up to speed on all the requirements to start using this technology effectively."
AFSOC members covered topics on information security, safety and guidance adhering to Federal Aviation Administration policies and flying in restricted airspace.
Bell said the 11th SFS plans to continue this training so they can counter and use sUAS to their full potential.
"Our training with AFSOC really opened our eyes and gave us the tools we need to effectively maintain a sUAS program here," said Senior Airman Madelyne Kowalczk, NCO in charge of 11th SFS counter-small unmanned aircraft systems. "The sUAS themselves give us a wide range of capabilities, such as responding to active-shooter scenarios, gate-runner incidents and perimeter surveillance, ultimately bolstering the safety and security of our community here at Joint Base Andrews."
Security forces personnel emphasized that privately owned sUAS are not allowed in JBA's restricted airspace by the direction of the installation commander. Additionally, the National Capital Region is governed by a Special Flight Rules Area within a 30-mile radius of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, which restricts all flights in the greater D.C. area.
The SFRA is divided into a 15-mile radius inner ring and a 30-mile radius outer ring.
Flying an unmanned aircraft within the 15-mile radius inner ring is prohibited without specific FAA authorization.
Flying a drone between 15 and 30 miles from Washington, D.C. is allowed under these operating conditions:
Aircraft must weigh less than 55 lbs. (including any attachments, such as a camera)
Aircraft must be registered and marked (if it is not operated exclusively under the Special Rule for Model Aircraft)
Aircraft flies below 400 ft.
Aircraft flies within visual line of sight
Aircraft flies in clear weather conditions
Aircraft never flies near other aircraft
Rules put in place after the 9/11 attacks establish "national defense airspace" over the airspace around Washington, D.C. and limit aircraft operations to those with an FAA and Transportation Security Administration authorization. Violators face stiff fines and criminal penalties.