Senator Heidi Heitkamp United States Senator for North Dakota

Press Releases

Jun 13 2018

U.S. Senate Committee Passes Bipartisan Bill Heitkamp Helped Introduce to Counter Emerging UAS Threats

Legislation Would Allow DHS and DOJ Officials to Monitor, Identify, & Intercept Illicit Use of Unmanned Aircraft

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp announced that bipartisan legislation she helped introduce to provide federal law enforcement authorities the ability to counter misuse of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) that threatens national security passed unanimously today in the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) currently have very limited authority to intercept UAS-related threats along U.S. borders or to vital facilities such as federal prisons, courthouses, and airports. Heitkamp’s bill would authorize both DHS and DOJ to detect, identify, and counter unmanned aircraft posing a threat to security personnel, infrastructure, and operations.

“As UAS technology has rapidly improved, we’ve seen North Dakota become a nationally recognized leader in unmanned aircraft research, training, and innovation. But we’ve also seen a rise in potential threats as it becomes easier for bad actors to use drone technology for nefarious purposes,” said Heitkamp. “With the release of yesterday’s new Northern Border Strategy, it’s clear that DHS needs to address gaps in its capabilities— including when it comes to mitigating the potentially dangerous effects of illegitimate drone use. I’ve continued to push for more ways to take advantage of our state’s strong commercial UAS sector, and North Dakota is well-positioned to play a central role in building new technologies that effectively detect and interdict UAS that could be used to traffic narcotics, commit acts of terrorism, or target border security operations. By passing our bipartisan bill out of Committee today, we are one step closer to giving our federal law enforcement the tools and training they need to stage critical counter-UAS operations and keep our communities strong and safe.”

The Committee also approved a Heitkamp amendment to legislation—called the Opioid Act— that would improve technology available at ports of entry and international mail facilities regarding the detection of illegal drugs— including opioids, methamphetamine and heroin. Heitkamp’s amendment would improve private sector outreach on technology development and make sure the U.S. Postal Service has a specific role reporting to Congress on research coordination.

The passage of the Counter-UAS bill comes one day after DHS released a new strategy— which Heitkamp pushed for and builds on her bill that became law to secure the Northern Border — to tackle chronic and emerging security issues along the Northern Border, including ways to deploy technology to expand domain awareness and surveillance capabilities. The Counter UAS bill would provide a clearer authorization for DHS to assess UAS-related threats and track or intercept any dangerous unmanned aircraft activities, including those posing a threat to North Dakotans’ public safety.

And during a hearing on the bipartisan bill last week, Heitkamp pressed DHS, DOJ, and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officials about what steps their agencies need to take to develop the technology and techniques to thwart illegal UAS uses that pose a threat to public safety.

Heitkamp, a member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, introduced the legislation with U.S. Senators Ron Johnson (R-WI), Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Tom Cotton (R-AR), and John Hoeven (R-ND).

Specifically, the Preventing Emerging Threats Act would provide leaders at DHS and DOJ the authorization they need to develop and use advanced UAS detection and interdiction technology to protect federal buildings and operations. The bill contains important privacy protections, and requires DHS to conduct several assessments to evaluate future threats malicious UAS activity may pose to domestic infrastructure and the general public.

Heitkamp has consistently supported U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) UAS training and border enforcement operations in North Dakota. The CBP’s Air and Marine Operations (AMO) operates a National Air Security Operations Center at Grand Forks Air Force Base, which serves as the primary training ground for the CBP’s UAS pilots and crews. From Grand Forks, AMO also conducts border enforcement efforts at the Northern, Southwestern, and Coastal Borders, assists federal, state, local and tribal partners, and has been critical in addressing flooding in the Red River Valley.

Last September, Heitkamp announced a new CBP AMO pilot training program at the University of North Dakota to help address a nationwide shortage of AMO pilots.

Background

This legislation builds on Heitkamp’s efforts to boost cutting-edge UAS research in North Dakota and across the country. Last month, Heitkamp joined  U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao to announce that the U.S. Department of Transportation and the FAA selected the North Dakota Department of Transportation as one of 10 entities nationwide to help implement a pilot program to test the further integration of UAS into the national airspace, which Heitkamp helped push. North Dakota’s participation in the program will leverage the unique expertise of the Northern Plains UAS Test Site in Grand Forks. In 2016, Heitkamp played a critical role in successfully pushing the FAA to authorize the Northern Plains UAS Test Site as the first site in the country to conduct beyond-visual-line-of-sight operations.

Heitkamp has long worked to advance North Dakota’s UAS and border security priorities, including the Northern Plains Test Site, Grand Sky, and Grand Forks Air Force Base, including: 

  • Securing long-term Northern Border UAS efforts at Grand Forks Air Force Base. Heitkamp pushed DHS to secure a long-term AMO presence at the Grand Forks Airforce Base, and in September 2017, DHS and Customs and Border protection heeded her call to maintain the their presence on the base.
  • Promoting the strengths of Grand Sky business and aviation park. In February, Heitkamp toured Grand Sky — which conducts UAS flights in partnership with Northern Plains— to tout its role in diversifying local jobs, growing North Dakota’s economy, and strengthening U.S. national security efforts. During her tours of Northrop Grumman and General Atomics facilities, Heitkamp reinforced the critical role Northrop Grumman plays in advancing the Grand Forks Air Force Base’s Global Hawk mission – helping provide intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance for global operations. She also stressed the need to build out UAS training efforts that General Atomics has spearheaded to support international counterterrorism efforts and U.S. Customs & Border Protection surveillance along the Northern Border.
  • Removing barriers to UAS technology development and investments in North Dakota. Heitkamp successfully pressed then-FAA Administrator Michael Huerta on his agency’s efforts to improve the integration of UAS into the nation’s airspace, urging his agency in 2014 to avoid delays that could hinder the growth of the industry. Just three months later, the FAA heeded her call – announcing the UAS rule proposals she had asked for.

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Contact Senator Heitkamp's press office at press@heitkamp.senate.gov