Technological advance has provided both consumers and businesses with a variety of shiny new gadgets and services. However, as the rise of cyberattacks has underlined, it has also provided society’s undesirable elements new means of creating nuisance or committing crime.
The growing popularity of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) — aka drones — is a case in point. Their powerful video cameras open up a whole new world of photographic opportunities. Insurers and loss adjusters are finding them a valuable aid in claims investigation. Unfortunately, drones are also increasingly intruding on people’s privacy, crashing into buildings and intruding on aircraft flight paths.
The problem of rogue drones is on the rise on both sides of the Atlantic. In the UK, the British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA) this month called for research by the government and safety regulator the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) into the impact of a drone hitting a plane or helicopter, following a spate of near-misses at Heathrow and other UK airports.
BALPA believes that the impact of a drone colliding with an aircraft could smash the windscreen or, worse, that their lithium batteries could trigger an engine fire.
Even more alarming was the January report “Hostile Drones: The Hostile Use of Drones by Non-State Actors Against British Targets” published by security think-tank Oxford Research Group, which warned that “drones are a game changer in the wrong hands.”
The report assessed the design and capabilities of more than 200 unmanned aerial, ground and marine systems and also how drones had been used by activists, terrorists and organised crime groups.
“Drones are a game changer in the wrong hands.”
“Drones are being used by individuals beyond authorized and accepted use,” the report’s authors concluded. “There is particular concern [they] will be used as affordable and effective airborne improvised explosive devices (IEDs), as well as concern regarding the decentralisation and democratisation of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities.”
The list of potential targets for flying bomb attacks included foreign embassies, nuclear power stations, a G7 summit or the prime minister’s car. “The UK government, police, military and security services will need to introduce countermeasures to reduce or mitigate the risk of commercially available drones being used for attack,” the report concluded.
Those recommended included the licensing of drones and defenses such as laser systems to protect targets, radio frequency jammers and authorization for the police and army to shoot down any suspect drone.
From Eagles to Bazookas
Meanwhile, initiatives to defend against rogue drones are a mixture of the surreal and James Bond movie. Police in the Netherlands have joined forces with Guard From Above, which describes itself as “the first company in the world to use birds of prey to intercept hostile drones”.
GFA held an international press day earlier this month to demonstrate how trained eagles can be used to snatch a rogue drone in mid-air. This company assures doubters that this “lo-tech solution to a hi-tech problem” is perfectly feasible as the birds’ “incredible visual acuity” enables them to hit the drone without being injured by the rotors.
A more hi-tech solution has been developed by the European aerospace conglomerate Airbus, which last September unveiled its counter-UAV system. Based on a combination of radars, infrared cameras and direction finders, the system can identify possible rogue drones from a distance of up to 10 kilometres (6 miles), determine their threat potential and bring them down if needed.
“Furthermore, the direction finder tracks the position of the pilot who subsequently can be arrested,” Toulouse, France-based Airbus stated. “Since the jamming technology contains versatile receiving and transmitting capabilities, more sophisticated measures like remote control classification and global positioning system [GPS] spoofing can be utilized as well. This allows effective and specific jamming and also a controlled takeover of the UAV.”
More 007-type technology has come from this month’s UK launch of the SkyWall 100 anti-drone net bazooka. Developed by the Northumberland-based start-up OpenWorks Engineering, the concept behind the system is to capture a rogue drone in a net and deliver it intact with a parachute, via a combination of compressed gas-powered smart launcher and an intelligent programmable projectile.
SkyWall 100 is the first release in a planned series of systems; described as a “man-portable handheld launcher that is highly mobile and a cost effective way of dealing with the drone threat.” In the pipeline are SkyWall 200, a semi-permanent device that can be carried by two people and the SkyWall 300, a permanent installation with a fixed mechanical turret.
Each of these initiatives could be contenders for the S100,000 prize offered last November by MITRE Corp for novel ways to detect and identify suspicious small drones and “interdict those that present a safety or security threat”. Participants had until early February to submit a white paper outlining their approach and the most promising entries will be demonstrated early in the fall.