Establishing a Framework for Counter-UAS


“What is Counter-UAS?”  As a new security and defense specialty, it is a common question asked by emerging industry leaders, legislators, and experienced security professionals. Depending on who is asked, it is likely the answer will depend on the industry application, familiarity with the topic, and personal perspective of that respondent. The response may also vary based on the legal and regulatory authorities of the entity performing the mission.

The existing definitions of Counter-UAS range from simple descriptions to wordy legal definitions. This article will explore and break down a sample of the definitions for this security mission and provide a universal framework of Counter-UAS that can apply to defense, government, law enforcement, and private industry. Establishing a common framework is important to understanding this emerging area of expertise and aligning expectations for its implementation.

Aerial view of an oil refinery
Protection of critical infrastructure from airborne threats is an essential component of homeland security (Image Credit: Kalyakan- Adobe Stock)

Previous Descriptions of Counter-UAS

Counter-UAS is often described simply as “deploying UAS detection and mitigation equipment.” Detection equipment includes radars, acoustic sensors, radio frequency (RF) sensors, and electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) cameras. Mitigation equipment includes kinetic and non-kinetic technologies to disrupt, disable, or destroy a drone. Counter-UAS is more than just the deployment and use of technologies. While the technology is an essential component of Counter-UAS operations, it does not entirely define the mission.

Multi-Agency Advisory Document

In a 2020 document titled Advisory on the Application of Federal Laws to the Acquisition and Use of Technology to Detect and Mitigate Unmanned Aircraft Systems, co-authored by the Department of Justice (DOJ), Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and the Department of Transportation (DOT), an implied definition of Counter-UAS is provided as, “…using technical tools, systems, and capabilities to detect and mitigate Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS).” This implied definition, although general enough to allow for a broad interpretation, is focused primarily on the use of technologies to counter the threat of UAS.

Title 49 of the U.S. Code

In Title 49 of the U.S. Code (U.S.C.) § 44801(5), a “counter-UAS system” means “a system or device capable of lawfully and safely disabling, disrupting, or seizing control of an unmanned aircraft or unmanned aircraft system.” This definition focuses entirely on the mitigation component of the security mission and does not include any of the components of detection as part of the Counter-UAS process.

The Preventing Emerging Threats Act of 2018

Although no specific term such as Counter-UAS is used to describe the mission in 6 U.S.C. § 124n, which provides statutory relief from provisions of Title 18 and Title 49 to the DOJ and DHS, Counter-UAS is characterized as the “protection of certain facilities and assets from unmanned aircraft,” and “…may authorize personnel with assigned duties that include the security or protection of people, facilities, or assets” to take further actions which include:

  • Detect, identify, monitor, and track the unmanned aircraft system or unmanned aircraft without prior consent;
  • Warn the operator of the unmanned aircraft system or unmanned aircraft;
  • Disrupt control of the unmanned aircraft system or unmanned aircraft without prior consent;
  • Seize or exercise control of the unmanned aircraft system or unmanned aircraft;
  • Seize or otherwise confiscate the unmanned aircraft system or unmanned aircraft;
  • Use reasonable force, if necessary, to disrupt, disable, damage, or destroy the unmanned aircraft system or unmanned aircraft.

That legally packed description of Counter-UAS does not apply to all entities or agencies that provide security to critical infrastructure or protect mass gatherings. In the United States, only the DOJ, DHS, Department of Defense (DOD), and the Department Energy (DOE) can deploy and use technology that would otherwise violate various provisions of Title 18 and Title 49. Federal legislation in the United States may expand those authorities in the future. Other countries around the world have similar legal and regulatory limitations on who can deploy and use certain Counter-UAS technologies.

Universally Applicable Framework

While consensus may be lacking on how to specifically define Counter-UAS, a common framework for this important operational activity is essential to this emerging discipline. The framework should consider the varying mission types and legal authorities of the organizations that may perform this mission. It should also emphasize the importance of a comprehensive airspace awareness picture and include both the technical and non-technical aspects that play a role in protecting from the threat of criminal or nefarious use of UAS or drones.

Given the current legal and operational Counter-UAS landscape in the United States and other countries around the globe, the following is offered as a universal construct for Counter-UAS operations:

Counter-UAS is the deployment and use of logical, legally authorized technologies, tactics, techniques, and procedures to provide airspace awareness and protection to critical infrastructure, assets, and mass gatherings.

Framework Breakdown


Determining whether an action is logical can be difficult to define. However, when it comes to Counter-UAS operations, one of the primary goals is to conduct the mission in a way that does not increase the risk to the critical infrastructure, assets, and mass gatherings you are trying to protect. For example, during homeland security Counter-UAS missions, operators must constantly assess, often with little time, whether taking an action against an unauthorized or hostile drone will result in more of a safety risk to the mass gathering, asset or critical infrastructure being protected, than the actual drone itself. Response options and objectively reasonable courses of action will need to be constantly reassessed as more information becomes available to the operator. For this reason, Counter-UAS operations must be logical.

Legally Authorized 

There may be prohibitions based on the Counter-UAS systems’ functionality or techniques used to perform the mission that violates a nation’s criminal laws. Additionally, some technologies may negatively impact the safety of the national airspace system, adversely affect the radio frequency spectrum, or increase the risk to public safety, assets, and critical infrastructure. Privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties protections also are essential considerations for Counter-UAS operations. For this reason, “legally authorized” is a required element of any universally accepted definition or framework of Counter-UAS.


The use of technologies includes UAS detection equipment (radars, cameras, acoustic sensors, and radio frequency sensors) and mitigation equipment (kinetic and non-kinetic). To provide a more complete airspace awareness picture, the following are examples of technologies that should also be included in the Counter-UAS ecosystem:

  • Uncrewed Traffic Management (UTM) systems
  • Remote Identification (Remote ID) sensors and receivers
  • Crewed aircraft tracking applications (provide airspace awareness and help to deconflict lights at night)
  • Low-earth orbit satellite tracking applications (help to deconflict lights at night)
  • Celestial body identification applications (help to deconflict lights at night)

Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures

Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures, or TTPs, refer to how the Counter-UAS mission, functions, and tasks are performed. These TTPs include measures that will vary based on the organization’s legal authorities and mission. TTPs can evolve with knowledge and experience. Examples of TTPs include:

  • An organization’s policies and procedures related to airspace awareness, security measures, and response protocols.
  • Updating the physical designs of buildings or other measures to reduce their vulnerability to the criminal or nefarious use of drones.
  • Prevention and outreach initiatives to reduce the incidents of careless and clueless drone operators in and around critical infrastructure, assets, and mass gatherings.
  • Increased security, signage or placarding, and monitoring of frequent launch sites and pilot locations.
  • Camouflage of personnel and assets.
  • Social media and community outreach.
  • The safe integration of authorized drones into airspace management activities, including Counter-UAS operations. This includes public safety, military, and commercial drone traffic, as well as recreational pilots who are flying in unrestricted airspace.
  • The integration of UAS threat intelligence, threat assessments, information sharing, and risk management strategies.
Sign prohibiting Unmanned Aircraft/Drones
Signs are a method to decrease the incidents of careless and clueless drone operators around protected areas. (Image Credit: Dragos Asaftei- Adobe Stock)

Airspace Awareness

Airspace awareness is the real-time visibility of all aspects of the airspace in and around protected areas. It logically includes real-time awareness of both crewed and uncrewed aircraft traffic, but it also includes low-earth orbit satellites and celestial bodies as they can be mistaken for UAS during low-light conditions. Comprehensive awareness of the airspace facilitates logical decision-making in all aspects of a Counter-UAS mission.


Protection includes the combination of technology, TTPs, and measures to reduce the risk posed by UAS to critical infrastructure, assets, and mass gatherings. The available security measures will vary based on the organization’s legal authorities and mission. Examples of protective measures include:

  • Locating the pilot and deploying authorized law enforcement or security personnel for further investigation.
  • Using authorized technologies to disrupt, disable, or destroy UAS that are determined to be a threat to critical infrastructure, assets, or mass gatherings.

Critical Infrastructure 

Critical infrastructure refers to the sectors whose assets, systems, and networks, whether physical or virtual, are considered so vital to a country that their incapacitation would have a debilitating effect on security, national economic security, national public health or safety, or any combination thereof. Examples of critical infrastructure include:

  • Military installations
  • Embassies
  • Power plants
  • Ports
  • Chemical facilities
  • Airports
  • Stadiums

For more information on the sixteen critical infrastructure sectors, please visit the DHS Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) website.


An asset is a general term that can be applied to anything of value. Examples of assets may include:

  • Corporate proprietary information
  • High-level government officials
  • Company personnel and infrastructure
  • Military units or essential military equipment
  • Corporate reputation

Mass Gathering

The definition of a “mass gathering” may vary depending on many factors. Those include the location, number of participants, event duration, and the resources required or available to secure the venue. Regardless of the specifics of what comprises a “mass gathering,” the security industry universally recognizes the value in protecting large gatherings of people from harm.


Although there is no universally accepted definition of Counter-UAS, a review of many existing definitions revealed they are not flexible enough to account for the complexity of Counter-UAS operations. A new framework is required that considers the different types of organizations that may perform the mission, the varying capabilities, and the legal authorities that may be used.

A new, universally applicable framework is meant to account for the mission variations, as well as emphasize the importance of the use of logical and legal techniques to reduce the risks to the national airspace, the radio frequency spectrum, critical infrastructure, assets, and mass gatherings. Establishing a common framework is important to baselining this emerging area of expertise to ensure the Counter-UAS industry, legislators, and experienced security professionals remain aligned in implementing this important new area of expertise.

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