A DJI employee demonstrates flying a drone at CES 2016 at the Las Vegas Convention Center in January 2016. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

A DJI employee demonstrates flying a drone at CES 2016 at the Las Vegas Convention Center in January 2016. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Drones: Is the Airspace above Your Data Center Secure?

Do you think the person who made this video broke the law?

That’s the question Adam Ringle, a security and emergency services expert, asked the audience during his keynote Monday at the Data Center World Global conference in Las Vegas.

The answer is no, but there’s some subtlety here. While flying a drone over a private property like Walmart data center in the video above is not a criminal act, it is a violation of FAA rules. FAA, or Federal Aviation Administration, has seen its airspace regulation duties expand greatly in recent years with the explosion in the use of drones.

Ringle, who runs a security and emergency services consulting and training practice, was at Data Center World to educate data center operators about the potential security threats Unmanned Aerial Systems can pose to facilities they operate, what they can do to protect themselves from those threats, and how they can use the technology themselves to improve security.

A $10,000 thermal camera attached to a drone can easily map what’s inside your data center from the air using thermal imaging technology, he said. And that’s just one of the potential threats.

According to Ringle, the known and common drone threats are:

  • Corporate espionage
  • Contraband delivery
  • Weaponized systems
  • Delivery of hazardous materials or explosives
  • Facility infiltration
  • Hacking and spying
  • Theft of data with raspberry or snooping
  • Privacy issues
  • Airspace conflicts
  • Accidents
  • Mechanical failure

Like with any new technology, it takes some time for the law to catch up, and the legal framework for drone operation is still taking shape. The only case law on this subject is 60 years old.

United States v. Causby was a 1946 case, in which a farmer sued the government for trespassing, because low-flying military planes caused his chickens to throw themselves against walls and die. The court ruled that Causby was owed compensation, but the majority opinion also established that a landowner had control of “as much of the space above the ground as he can occupy or use in connection with the land.”

“That is the only case law that exists on this topic,” Ringle said.

The FAA, however, has already devised guidelines for consumer, commercial, and government operators of UASs. There are also different rules for different types and sizes of drones. Data center operators, he said, should get familiar with these rules and create policies for dealing with unwelcome visitors from above.

If you see a drone flying above your data center, but you don’t see the pilot, for example, they are probably violating FAA rules. If you do see the pilot, they are obligated to show you their FAA documentation if you ask them.

FAA also mandates that UASs must stay a certain distance away from buildings. “Technically, they can’t fly it close to your building, period,” without certain FAA approvals, Ringle said.

Some data center operators may also think about integrating the use of drones into their own security programs. There are drones, for example, that can bring down an unwanted UAS by dropping a net with weights on it, which disables the rotors.

One important initiative is NoFlyZone, which maintains a database of private properties whose owners don’t want drones flying over them. The organization maintains a database of GPS locations of these properties and drone makers who participate program their drones to avoid those locations.

Home owners can sign up for free at www.noflyzone.org. Currently, the initiative is limited to homes, but a paid subscription model for businesses is in the works, Ringle said.

Join 2,000 of your peers at Data Center World Global 2016, March 14-18, in Las Vegas for a real-world, “get it done” approach to converging efficiency, resiliency and agility for data center leadership in the digital enterprise. More details on the Data Center World website.

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About the Author

San Francisco-based business and technology journalist. Editor in chief at Data Center Knowledge, covering the global data center industry.

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  1. Your rules about flying drones over the building are flat out wrong. There is no such rule about flying over buildings. The only similar rule is not to fly over stadiums filled with people. Here's the full text of the drone rules as they apply to civilian, non-commercial use. https://www.faa.gov/uas/model_aircraft/

  2. E. Hamm

    Mike You are incorrect. Drones are not considered model aircraft if use in the manner that Adam described. Check out FAA 14 CFR 91 (Docket No. FAA 2014-0396). I have included the link: http://www.faa.gov/uas/media/model_aircraft_spec_rule.pdf They are considered aircraft if used in the manner described by Adam. As such they are limited to 500 feet horizontally and vertically from unpopulated and 1000 feet horizontally and vertically from populated areas. This includes buildings, vessels, people, cars, etc. See the restriction listed in §91.119 Minimum safe altitudes: General. I have included the link: http://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?c=ecfr&sid=3efaad1b0a259d4e48f1150a34d1aa77&rgn=div5&view=text&node=14: Currently a UAV/UAS are limited to 400 feet in altitude, therefore Adam is correct in stating they are not allowed to fly over buildings. Because the UAS/UAV cannot obtain the minimum altitude of 500 feet, let alone the required 1000 feet they cannot be flown over buildings. Additionally, it is plausible that if the engine quit the operator could not safely land the UAVUAS without hitting the building.

  3. Mr. Murray, Thanks for your comments but drones are not considered model aircraft. Under the current FAA rules, Any drone weighing between .55 pounds and 55.0 pounds is considered an actual aircraft. Therefore, they are governed by the same altitude restrictions as all aircraft under FAR §91.119 as well as being subject to the same pilotage requirements.