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The TSA is planning to shoot down drones near airports. GOP congressmen say that's dangerous and probably illegal.

A Transportation Security Administration patch is seen during K-9 explosives training at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, on June 20, 2011.

JUSTIN CONNAHER/U.S. AIR FORCE

By IAN DUNCAN | The Washington Post | Published: November 16, 2019

The TSA wants to give air marshals the power use Defense Department equipment to shoot down drones near airports, two congressmen said Friday, seeking to tackle the small automated aircraft that can harass much larger planes and leave flights grounded.

But in a letter to the Department of Homeland Security that summarizes the plan, the top Republicans on the House Transportation and Homeland Security committees said the idea goes far beyond what they envisaged when they gave the federal government new powers to counter drones last year.

Reps. Sam Graves, R-Mo., and Mike Rogers, R-Ala., said only the Federal Aviation Administration has the expertise to manage the nation's skies.

"Nobody wants drones to cause disruptions at our airports, but to hastily hand over authority to shoot down drones to an agency that doesn't have the critical knowledge or experience of how our airspace system functions is irresponsible and dangerous," the congressmen said in a statement.

DHS began working with other government departments to develop an emergency plan this summer, after a drone grounded traffic at London's busy Gatwick Airport shortly before Christmas, an incident that was first reported in Politico. The plans were finalized last month.

British police arrested two people after repeated drone sightings near Gatwick led to 150 flights being canceled, disrupting the travel plans of 120,000 people. In January, authorities briefly stopped traffic at Newark Liberty International Airport after two drones were spotted.

The incidents vividly demonstrated a risk posed by drones that authorities have long warned about. The small aircraft run the risk of colliding with planes and helicopters, especially when they're taking off, and could even be converted into flying bombs.

In response to the threat, Congress at the Trump administration's urging last year gave DHS new authority to tackle drones, including the power to destroy them, if they posed a danger to the security of sensitive locations, like Customs and Border Protection facilities and Secret Service offices.

But in their letter, Graves and Rogers said Congress did not contemplate airports being covered in the new law.

The congressmen also said the specifics of the DHS plan were ill-conceived, calling the department's experience using counter-drone technology "sorely lacking" and saying that the air marshals had a "complete absence of any experience in such matters."

DHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the plan, and it's not clear what kind of weapons it envisions using to tackle the drones.

At this year's United Nations General Assembly in New York, the Secret Service and Coast Guard tested counter-drone technology, saying it planned to detect radio signals and potentially locate pilots to discuss what they're up to. If that didn't work, the authorities planned to use "technology to mitigate the threat by disrupting or disabling" the drones, according to a public disclosure.

The Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates drones, has been working on safety rules that would allow them to be remotely identified.

But even as the government has sought new ways to counter the risks posed by drones, the FAA is increasingly embracing the technology, working with start-ups and established businesses alike to unlock its commercial potential. In recent weeks, an offshoot of Google and UPS have both begun the first regular commercial deliveries using drones.

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