Executive Insight, Policy & Regulation, T&D

Energy Industry also Faces Threats from Drones

The energy sector is subject to the potential harm caused by drones flying in minimally regulated, and often unmonitored airspace. The energy industry does not only have an impact on commerce but rather national security. It’s time to invest in airspace security, just as energy companies invest in ground-based security. How do you create fences and doors with locks in the sky?

The energy sector is adopting drone technology to increase safety and efficiency at their refineries and across their infrastructure. However, the advent of drones in the hands of criminal or terrorist actors creates new security threats for this same infrastructure. A terrorist organization no longer need to recruit a suicide bomber when they can buy an autonomous drone off the shelf and have it fly with whatever destructive package they devise. Explosions caused by criminal drones at Aramco facilities are a recent example.

The energy sector is subject to the potential harm caused by drones flying in minimally regulated, and often unmonitored airspace. The energy industry does not only have an impact on commerce but rather national security. An event such as the one at Aramco refinery, caused by a nefarious drone attack, could take down the power grid and affect day-to-day commerce, interstate trade and the comfort and safety of the American public. Homeland Security identifies the U.S. energy infrastructure as the main factor that fuels the economy of the 21st century. Without a stable energy supply, health and welfare are threatened, and the U.S. economy cannot function.  The daily cost of taking a power-generating facility offline would have a huge financial impact and therefore, the need for energy leaders to understand, access, and mitigate risk is crucial.

While drones and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) were historically used solely for surveillance and in military settings, they are now more prevalent and accessible to the general public. In turn, the potential threat caused by misplaced consumer drones or drones used by nefarious characters has increased. The sheer volume of drones in the market, coupled with cybersecurity threats and lagging federal regulations means that industries like the energy sector are prone to threats that are yet uncategorized.

Government and national security officials are taking notice. General Joseph F. Dunford, Jr. Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff has said, “Drones are at the top list for our emerging threats.” In addition, the Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman, Ron Johnson, stated, “the federal government does not have the legal authorities it needs to protect the American public from these kinds of threats. The threats posed by malicious drones are too great to ignore.” Now, more than ever, there is an urgency to understand and mitigate these potential risks.

Understanding the threats

Gartner estimated that 3 million commercial and consumer drones would ship in 2017 and the market continues to grow. The level of harm that a nefarious drone can use for a purposeful attack is catastrophic. The average drone, though small, can be used to damage oil refineries, power plants, and nuclear facilities by flying directly into critical components with explosive payloads of over 50 lbs. There have been over 1,400 cited terrorist attacks on oil and gas facilities since 2000. A power plant, for instance, is vulnerable to a drone flying directly into the cooling engine, disabling it and thus offsetting the entire cooling process of the plant. This can have devastating effects in a matter of minutes. “You don’t need massive amounts of energy for a nuclear plant to into instability. The plant has enough energy to destroy itself. Drones can be used to tickle the plant into instability,” said John Large, Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Mitigating the risk

The energy sector can work to mitigate the risks posed by drones by conducting risk and vulnerability assessments, establishing internal protocols, creating ownership and accountability, and selecting an airspace awareness and security platform. The platform needs to detect, determine intention, support an integrated response including recovery and reporting.

As drones are a new technology, the need for specific protocol and guidelines surrounding them is needed. The energy industry should outline specific rules for employees to follow as it pertains to drones. These should include instructions for what to do when they see a drone flying near an energy source, what steps to take if a drone has entered a potentially hazardous area, and what safety precautions to commence in the event of an emergency caused by a drone. Similar to typical risks associated with the energy industry such as fire, earthquakes and floods, drones now present a real and present danger that needs to be accounted and planned for.

Make use of technology available to decrease the threats caused by drones. This includes implementing solutions that can detect and classify drones, then remove them from the area to avoid imminent harm. The key technology to detect all airspace information is radar. Radar-based solutions need to be tested as they are all not created equal. Your airspace awareness platform must pinpoint the exact location of intruder drones and monitor their trajectory to access the threat potential in real-time. The resulting detection must be analyzed quickly and threat assessed by your provider so the correct set of integrated responses can be deployed quickly and autonomously with a simple to use man-on-the-loop system. Additionally, “attack drones” exist to offer offensive security in the case that an intruding drone needs to be safely and effectively removed. The energy industry needs to take action in identifying the technology that acts as the best solution to safeguard its infrastructure and personnel from this new present danger.

Technology will drive security

The Federal Aviation Administration is tasked with regulating our airspaces and places the highest degree of concern on aircraft. While drones fall into their purview, the manpower needed to monitor and report on UAVs is simply not available. This leaves independent businesses to drive the innovation in technology to provide security for businesses facing threats from drones.

In conclusion, the energy industry need to take note of this new and present threat and make efforts to deal with it appropriately. From structuring guidelines for employees to embracing new technologies, the energy sector can work to safeguard from this threat.

About the author: Tim Bean is the Chief Executive Officer of  Fortem Technologies, a Boeing-backed airspace intelligence company that has developed the smallest, most accurate and cost-effective military-tested radar on the market to help detect, classify and secure malicious drones, in addition to other airspace safety solutions. Tim brings more than 25 years of global executive experience successfully building businesses and technology startups in Silicon Valley. Tim currently oversees the corporate direction and strategy for Fortem Technologies, responsible for all aspects of sales, product and service creation, delivery and customer service support.