- Cargo & Facilities

11/25/2014: Unmanned aircraft systems and suspicious activity reporting

Written by Lt. Cmdr. Brian McSorley, chief of port facility and cargo security branch in the Office of Port and Cargo Compliance

Throughout the country, cities and towns are rebranding their working waterfronts and port areas to include recreational activities. This expansion of public access to the waterfront and waterways can certainly benefit the port community by providing increased funds to improve waterfront infrastructure. But, as more users compete over valuable real estate and further operate in already congested waterways, access can expose safety and security issues. Where in the past most security threats to vessel and facility operators came from the shore or waterside, the proliferation of low-cost remote-controlled aircraft, or unmanned aircraft systems and commonly referred to as “drones”, exposes vessels and facilities to threats from above. There are many legitimate uses for UAS, but they may also pose a threat by providing a means to facilitate surveillance, collect information on critical infrastructure, and potentially a means to harm a facility.

The use of UAS has increased dramatically within the past few years. We have seen not only recreational-users embrace easily-attainable UAS technology, but also real estate developers, artists and event promoters. Within the past year, the Coast Guard’s Office of Port and Facility Compliance has tracked nearly 30 reports of UAS flying over critical port infrastructure or vessels. While the vast majority of these reports appear to be legitimate and innocuous flights by recreational users, it is imperative that facility and vessel operators remain vigilant and report to the National Response Center any suspicious UAS activity in the vicinity of their vessels and facilities.

The terms “drone” or “UAV” are not used by the Federal Aviation Administration in their definition of unmanned aviation systems, or in the UAS policies or regulations, and should be avoided when reporting any UAS activity. The FAA is developing regulations to better address UAS operations. More information on UAS can be found on the FAA’s website.

Suspicious UAS activity includes the following:

• Suspected reconnaissance and surveillance activities, indicated by repeated activities at a particular place and time such as fly-overs, hovering at low altitudes and prolonged time on station;
• Testing of facility security protocols using UAS, indicated by flying by a target, moving into sensitive areas and observing the reaction of security personnel; or
• Suspected filming of facility or vessel operations and security processes, indicated by slow over-flights and the observed presence of a camera.


As with all reports of suspicious activity, facility and vessel operators shall contact the National Response Center at 1-800-424-8802 with any and all reports of suspicious UAS activity. The general public is encouraged to make reports of suspicious activities, including UAS operations, to America’s Waterway Watch at 877-24-WATCH (877-249-2824).

This blog is not a replacement or substitute for the formal posting of regulations and updates or existing processes for receiving formal feedback of the same. Links provided on this blog will direct the reader to official source documents, such as the Federal Register, Homeport and the Code of Federal Regulations. These documents remain the official source for regulatory information published by the Coast Guard.

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