Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

May 10, 2011

Controlling domestic UAVs wirelessly through a cellular network: major policy challenges

Filed under: Technology for HLS — by Christopher Bellavita on May 10, 2011

Seven decades ago,  C. P. Snow gave a lecture about a communication breakdown between two cultures — humanities and science.  Their inability to understand and value the way each viewed the world inhibited the search for solutions to the world’s problems.

Public policy in general — and homeland security policy in particular — may suffer from the same divide.  I know few homeland security policy makers who understand or appreciate the technical dimension of the enterprise; and even fewer homeland security scientists and technicians who value the daily dilemmas of policy makers.

I was brought rudely to this awareness some weeks ago when a journal I’m involved with published several technical articles related to homeland security.  I did not find the articles especially easy to read.  But as I struggled through them, I found them to be models of organized discourse and presentation.  Eventually, with some effort, reading them paid off for me.  I saw a side of homeland security I had been closed to.

Today’s post was written by a colleague who bridges both the scientific and the policy worlds of homeland security.  For organizational reasons, he prefers to remain anonymous.


Recently the Journal of Homeland Security Affairs published an article called “Policy, Practice, and the Search for Alpha” by Dr. Robert Josefek.  The article provides an overview of five papers that were judged best-in-track and best-in-conference from the 2010 Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) Homeland Security Technology (HST) Conference, the tenth annual meeting of this group.

In addition to his review of the scientific papers, Dr. Josefek points to the chasm that often exists between the detailed concerns of scientists and the broader focus of policy makers:

While both ends of the spectrum are important, my observation is that it is sometimes a challenge for these groups [scientists and policy makers] to understand and best benefit from each other. Yet innovations in science and technology can enable policy options that were not previously available and policy goals can drive scientists and technologists to find ways to reach heretofore-unobtainable objectives.

Among the papers reviewed one in particular illustrates in my mind the intersection of policy and science for homeland security related research.  Daniel and Wietfeld’s article, “Using Public Network Infrastructures for UAV Remote Sensing in Civilian Security Operations,” was selected best for the category of Attack and Disaster Preparation, Recovery and Response.

The paper proposes a method of employing multiple Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), controlled wirelessly through a cellular network, to monitor atmospheric plumes from events such as large fires, industrial accidents, and CBRN terrorist attacks.

The authors’ central idea is to use cell towers because the public safety spectrum is extremely limited, and unlicensed frequency (ISM band) is often unreliable.  A GAO report in 2008 (pdf file)  corroborates their claim and cites wireless communications “security and protected spectrum” among one of the critical requirements for integration of unmanned aircraft into the National Airspace (NAS).


My first impression of their idea was skepticism.  Public safety organizations have come to be wary of the reliability of cell phone systems during times of disaster due to the cell towers being disabled or call volume simply overwhelming the ability to even access the system.

Despite Full Motion Video (FMV) being excluded from consideration in the paper, FMV will be an important aspect of the system and provisions will need to be made to accommodate the bandwidth required.  Coupled with this will be the need to develop a seamless handoff amongst different carriers as the UAV traverses a geographic region.

The Federal Aviation Administration rightly views safety paramount and protocols will need to be developed to allow manned and unmanned aircraft to safely coexist.  The public will certainly have privacy concerns over information that is collected and stored.

Finally, there remains a suspicion by public safety of the cellular industry due in part to problems experienced from Nextel building out a network in the 800 MHz band in the 1990s that ultimately caused significant interference with existing public safety communications.


Feeling there was more to the issue, I reached out to a friend to get another perspective.  He is a former Coast Guard pilot and now runs a company that operates a fleet of surrogate unmanned aerial vehicles. His company provides ground based users UAV capabilities without any of the restrictions associated with operating in the National Airspace System, and has accumulated over 2,000 operational hours in the last 2 years operating nationally over both congested and rural areas.

Last year during the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, his company’s  systems operated 12 hours per day for more than 100 consecutive days and provided command centers with real time full motion video over a 10,000 square mile area covering the waters off Mississippi and Louisiana.

His perspective of Daniel and Wietfeld’s paper differed from mine.  He supports the authors’ position advocating greater leverage of existing cellular infrastructure and reinforcing it with mobile ad-hoc networks (MANETs) and satellite links in order to maintain connectivity in dead spots.  He mentioned that as a Coast Guard officer he supported operations following Hurricane Katrina and told me:

During Hurricane Katrina wireless air cards in helicopters provided limited airborne connectivity and the solution worked remarkably well at the low altitudes and airspeeds most helicopters were operating at during the response.  In the years since Katrina, we have learned a great deal about the strengths and limitations of using cellular networks to support operational missions and found that augmentation with MANETs and satellite communication is critical to ensure mission reliability.  We have found that use of the 2.4GHz ISM band in rural or open ocean areas works very well, but it is significantly degraded in urban environments or disaster base camp settings.  We have also found that using 5GHz in those same areas adequately addresses the interference issues experienced at 2.4GHz, which serve to reinforce Daniel and Witfield’s findings.

He and I did find common ground in that the call for small unmanned arial vehicles operating at low altitudes is going to multiply exponentially over the next few years over our states and cities.  Assigning each an IP address and managing them through existing and augmented wireless infrastructure is the only manageable path.


In order to incorporate UAVs into both civilian and emergency response applications many groups are going to have to come together.  Some of the most critical components include the FAA introducing Next Gen Air technologies to accommodate the coexistence of manned and unmanned aircraft.  At the same time that legislation is progressing on FAA Reauthorization, Congress is also moving forward to modernize Public Safety Communications.

Spectrum policy will have to be revised to allow safe and reliable control of unmanned vehicles. Among the proposals is to build out a nationwide cellular communications network for public safety in the 700 MHz spectrum recently vacated by TV stations.  I do not know if technically it would be feasible to link the two together but it might be a consideration for the public safety UAV industry to investigate using the new network while in the planning stages.  The alternative is to “beef up” the existing cellular networks in order to provide daily unmanned vehicle operations and ensure operability during times of disaster.

At the very least, part of the Senate version of the FAA reauthorization (S 223) tasks the National Academy of Sciences to study the unmanned aircraft spectrum issue. (Not everyone is pleased with this initiative, however.  See this link.)

Daniel and Witfield have helped identify a primary technical issue that homeland security leaders will have to contend with as the UAV industry attempts to move forward.  Policy makers will need to address these issues in developing a workable solution for daily use as well as during times of emergencies.  Daniel and Witfield’s paper will help policy makers understand the components of a technically sound plan.


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Comment by Arnold Bogis

May 10, 2011 @ 12:51 am

A very interesting post and thanks to Mr. UAV (I was thinking along the lines of the X telegram…). I have two reactions, one at 30,000 ft and one closer to the ground.

The larger issue regards the gap between science and policy–in my opinion this troubled relationship has existed for decades. It is nothing new, though in the homeland security context we might be witnessing a heavier-than-average industry hand in the mix (I’ll get back to that, but it is reflected in the statement “homeland security leaders will have to contend with as the UAV industry attempts to move forward”).

Each President has decided for himself how much weight to give scientific advice in decision making and national affairs. Kennedy famously (in arms control circles at least…) supported the Pugwash conferences as a Track II communication venue for dialing down, or at least expanding mutual understanding, of nuclear tensions with the USSR. Currently, Obama has chosen a scientific adviser who combined careers in both the scientific and policy worlds in John Holdren. On the negative side of the ledger, Congress decided years ago to rid themselves of their own scientific advisory office and the cost-benefit ratio of that action does not reflect kindly on them.

In terms of homeland security, the “open for business” and constant affirmation of the importance of industry has long left me with an uncomfortable feeling. While defense contracting is famously political, intricate, and occasionally simply staggering (I have always wanted to use a toilet that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars…just because…), in the long run it has generally bended to the strategic choices of defense decision makers.

Homeland security seems to act as if it has an inferiority complex and goes begging hat-in-hand to industry. Radiation detection equipment is developed before an architecture is developed. A technological wall for our southern border is appropriated before comprehensive immigration and border security plans are passed. And now officials may have to be concerned about the progress of the UAV industry before weighing all the relevant issues involved with domestic deployment of UAVs? Privacy, lack of resources, and perhaps most importantly mission?

I believe it was Oppenheimer who warned in the context of the work on the first nuclear bomb of “technically sweet” answers to intractable problems. Science and engineering solutions can get ahead of policy and moral decisions.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

May 10, 2011 @ 8:16 am

According to the Oppenheimer biography, American Prometheus:

“Oppenheimer sometimes spoke to politicians as if he were addressing children. He tried to warn of the possibility of nuclear terrorism — a bomb smuggled into a city in a container or crate. There was no high-tech defense, he noted. “What instrument would you use to detect an atomic bomb hidden somewhere in a city?” a senator asked in one closed hearing. Oppenheimer responded dryly, “A screwdriver” — to open cartons and suitcases.”

More broadly, and in the spirit of the original post, in recent weeks I have been surprised by a trend observed in a series of meetings with public and private, technical and non-technical folks. I have noticed it has been the public-sector, non-technical folks who have pressed for the clearest most decisive outcomes (regardless of the facts, or so it has seemed to me). In these meetings it has been the private sector and most technically oriented participants who have been most open to ambiguity, uncertainty, and provisional probes (rather than confident declarations). This contradicts a personal stereotype.

Sharing this observation with a friend, he pointed me to F.A. Hayek. In the May 8 Sunday Times Francis Fukuyama reviews a new edition of the Constitution of Liberty, summarizing Hayek as having argued: “…most of the knowledge in a modern economy was local in nature, and hence unavailable to central planners. The brilliance of a market economy was that it allocated resources through the decentralized decisions of a myriad of buyers and sellers who interacted on the basis of their own particular knowledge. The market was a form of “spontaneous order,” which was far superior to planned societies based on the hubris of Cartesian rationalism.”

Perhaps Snow’s two cultures was less science v. humanities and more certainty v. uncertainty, and these worldviews can be found across the disciplines.

Comment by Jake Brodsky

May 10, 2011 @ 9:22 pm

Ask the people in Brisbane Australia how well their cellular system worked while the Provincial Government sent text messages hour after hour telling everyone to evacuate. The wireless carriers were rendered useless when they were needed most.

Common Carriers have excellent reliability statistics. But it’s not the reliability statistics that we’re after when concerning ourselves with UAV safety. It is how well the system works during a major disaster. Indeed, that is when it usually gets so heavily loaded that a UAV may simply add to the hazard. And when would you be most likely to use a UAV?

This idea is very foolish and dangerous. Particularly during a disaster, you can’t assume in advance whether the next cell site will be online or have any bandwidth available for the next flight.

I can’t stress this more forcefully: RESERVE THE SPECTRUM AND INFRASTRUCTURE FOR THIS APPLICATION OR DON’T USE IT! Stay off of the common carriers.

Comment by Christopher Tingus

May 11, 2011 @ 7:19 am


I certainly concur with you and there are many more who state the same with as much or more emphasis –
This very important issue should be discussed thoroughly and public comment welcomed.

I did not read or hear that UAV’s were utilized during the “oil spill” – very interesting….I hope we are able to have more input by those of you familiar w/this subject.


Comment by William R. Cumming

May 11, 2011 @ 10:23 am

Well a great post and comments. Those UAV insect size tools are not far down the road.

Perhaps of some interest is an old 4th Circuit case (US Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit) and since don’t have lexis cannot give the citation. That court held that EPA violated 4th Amendment rights when using satellite technology to monitor land use changes. It was followed by other circuits (not all) in the search for pot fields in various farmers backyards. There is no SCOTUS ruling on these issues to the extent that I know about it.

So at some point the legal community may well weigh in on privacy, civil liberties, and 4th Amendment issues.

Comment by William R. Cumming

May 11, 2011 @ 10:26 am

And regards C.P. Snow hoping to read again his books next winter when dark comes early.

I also commend the book “The Children of Aristotle” when dealing with science versus reason background.

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November 19, 2012 @ 11:25 am

[…] Security Watch discusses an entirely different challenge to civilian applications in Controlling domestic UAVs wirelessly through a cellular network: major policy challenges.  Just as their military counterparts are facing a clogged information highway, Public Safety […]

Comment by Horacio Ballinas

June 4, 2014 @ 12:30 pm

Dr. Bellavita,

I am doing some research on my own on this use case. Do you have any update on this topic that could help me on my research or a way to contact you to tell you more about the nature of my research?

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