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Bad drones: the race to develop effective counter-drone security is on

Drones can be used by criminals to carry drugs or terrorists to drop bombs

Rune Fisker

Read more from The WIRED World 2017

In 2016, we learned of near misses with passenger jets, drugs being dropped into prisons and objects appearing in the air above sporting events – all involving small drones. In 2017, the battle will begin in earnest, as growing numbers of counter-drone systems are deployed – and the drones evolve in response.

DJI’s Phantom series has made the Shenzhen-based organisation the first billion-dollar commercial drone company; its products can shoot movie-quality aerial footage at a fraction of the cost of a helicopter, and are so easy to use that a novice can fly one out of the box. The Phantom 4 flies at up to 70kph and is designed to avoid obstacles automatically.

Easy availability of drones creates three types of danger: careless users may fly them into flight paths or crash them in crowded places; criminals can use them to smuggle contraband into prisons and invade private property; and terrorists can use them as bombs.

US think tank the MITRE Corporation has launched Counter-Unmanned Aircraft System (C-UAS), a competition for drone defence, seeking inexpensive “non-kinetic” solutions, that don’t involve shooting them down. Its thinking is that the risk of knocking a drone out of the sky – especially over a city – is too high, especially if it is carrying explosives. The potential for collateral damage by guns and missiles fired at drones is also considerable.

One of the contenders is the SkyWall 100, made by UK-based OpenWorks Engineering. It uses a bazooka-like launcher that fires a projectile with a net that envelopes the drone and parachutes it to the ground safely.

Some MITRE contenders rely on jamming. Radio Hill Technologies’ ray-gun-like Dronebuster, for instance, jams the radio communication between the drone and its operator. When this happens, most drones are programmed to land or return to base. Other counter-drone systems are more subtle: MESMER, a device developed by US company Department 13, can hack into the drone’s software and take over control.

There are no standards for such systems, and customers only have manufacturers’ claims to go by. The Rio Olympics was supposedly protected by jammers, but drones appeared over several events, suggesting the measures didn’t work as planned. The MITRE C-UAS competition should help identify which products work best; the hope of the organisers is that good ideas will attract funding.

The number of reported near misses between UAVs and aircraft quadrupled from 2015 to 2016, so the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) is taking steps to keep rogue craft away from airports. The FAA awarded a contract to British company Blighter Surveillance Systems and partners for its electronic Anti-UAV Defence System (AUDS). This is a bigger, more expensive setup than those in the MITRE competition, and can detect and track drones at long range before blocking them with radio-frequency jamming. FAA trials will continue in 2017.

The military also need drone defences. Photos on social media show consumer drones used as scouts by Daesh in Syria. The Pentagon’s Joint Improvised-Threat Defeat Agency (Jida), originally set up to deal with the threat of improvised explosive devices (IED), has asked US Congress for $20 million (£15m) to counter drones in Iraq.

“Drones have delivered small, precision IEDs in Iraq,” says Jida spokesman David Small. The number of attacks to date has been low, but their ability to bypass security barriers makes them disproportionately dangerous. A car bomb outside a compound is not as dangerous as a grenade dropped on your tent from a drone – and terrorist group Hezbollah has released videos of quadcopter drones adapted as grenade-bombers.

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, chief operating officer of SecureBio and a veteran of both Gulf wars, reported seeing a Daesh drone spying on Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in Syria. He noted how difficult it was to shoot down the small, flying targets, even in daylight. Hardware such as portable Stinger missiles have trouble locking on to battery-powered drones because of their lack of a heat signature. Such missiles are also pricey. “Would you spend $100,000 to take down a $1,000 device?” he asks.

Small says the US military is likely to upgrade its existing Counter Rocket, Artillery and Mortar (C-RAM) system. This is a turret with a radar-guided, computer-controlled Gatling gun, resembling a Dalek, which shoots down incoming rockets and mortar bombs. Drones are traditionally a challenge for C-RAM because they fly low, meaning their image is set against a cluttered background and can be mistaken for birds. But upgrades could turn C-RAM into an effective anti-drone weapon.

C-RAM is mounted on a 31-tonne trailer and is only useful for fixed sites. Convoys and troops on patrol might use jammers – some are reportedly already being used in Iraq – but whereas these may be effective now, they are unlikely to work for long. The US Air Force has warned that software is already available for drones to find and strike a target without external control. These are immune to jamming, because there is no communications link to jam, so a kinetic solution – a bullet or missile – may be needed.

This threat might lead to a new generation of low-cost mini-missiles, but the ultimate answer may lie in the drones themselves. Darpa, the Pentagon’s scientific research body, is soliciting ideas for a mobile system to protect against drones. Its solicitation is illustrated with a picture of a convoy defending itself against a swarm of attackers by launching its own squadron of defensive drones. These could be cheap, disposable devices, armed with net launchers in a sensitive area, or explosive warheads in a battle zone.

Counter-drone warfare will be a high-stakes game in 2017. As manufacturers vie to produce ever more capable – and cheaper – UAVs, their appeal to criminals and terrorists will continue to grow, and the need for counter-drone security will become ever more intense.

David Hambling is author of Swarm Troopers: How Small Drones will Conquer the World (Archangel Ink)

The WIRED World in 2017 is WIRED’s fifth annual trends briefing, predicting what’s coming next in the worlds of technology, science and design


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