By Jared Shelly
When Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro addressed a crowd in Caracas this summer, ground cover was ample. Soldiers in tight formations surrounded the leader, along with a coterie of bodyguards. But as he spoke, Maduro’s eyes lifted to see a small drown fly over the crowd and explode. Soldiers scattered and security scrambled to shield him from the apparent assassination attempt.
Maduro wasn’t hurt, but the surprise attack is a stark reminder that unmanned aerial vehicles pose a nascent security threat. In the United States, they’ve been used to smuggle drugs into a prison. Other times their owners simply lose control and cause alarm— like when a drone accidentally crashed on White House grounds.
This month, Congress passed the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018, a new law that gives Homeland Security and the Justice Department the power to track and shoot down threatening drones. It also imposes remote identification and tracking requirements and establishes no-fly zones. Congress passed the law over the objections of both the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union, which argued that the law allows the government broad powers that exempt them from the usual search, seizure and surveillance laws.
Whatever your position, the new law is likely to spur the government to acquire and contract their own drone-hunting technology. Here are a few companies who have made wrangling low-tech drones their business.
DJI — which manufactures 74 percent of the drones flying today — has created a detection system called Aeroscope. DJI encodes their UAVs with valuable information in the radio stream between the pilot and drone — including the drone’s location, serial number, flight path, altitude, direction, speed and location of the pilot. It also allows the operator to input important information that’ll explain its mission to authorities.
“Let’s say you’re a media organization flying over the scene of some news,” said Adam Lisberg, corporate communication director, North America at DJI. “You can add that ‘This is the KQED drone, we’re monitoring the car crash on I-280.’ ” Aeroscope works exclusively on DJI drones and does not have the ability to bring them to the ground.
Fortem Technologies has created DroneHunter, an intelligent, robotic aircraft enabled with radar that can engage autonomously via artificial intelligence detection, tracking, and guidance. When it finds a drone, it uses its cannons to shoot them with nets that are impenetrable to cuts from propeller blades.
“We have a higher capture rate than most anti-missile systems,” said Timothy Bean, CEO of Fortem Technologies. “With dual and quad net guns per vessel, the system is very reliable day and night to keep a no fly zone clear at a very safe standoff distance from the venue, building or protected region.”
RoboTiCan takes a more literal approach to hunting rogue drones. Its two-year-old product Goshawk is a rugged, autonomous drone built to ram into a malicious drone and knock it out of the sky. Ofir Bustan, chief financial and operations officer of the Israeli company, said Goshawk uses a learning algorithm that develops greater accuracy every time it’s used. Goshawk is aimed at countering recreational, non-military drones and is used by the Israeli ministry of defense, Bustan said.
Goshawk should be used as part of a larger system that first tries to control a rogue drone and land it safely — or jam the signal to the operator.
“If those two methods are not successful, then you want to ram into it with our Goshawk system to ensure the threat is eliminated,” said Bustan. “When drones come falling down from the sky, they usually hit something when they fall to the ground. So you want to use that option last, especially when you’re around urban areas.”
Those unintended consequences are a big reason the FAA is taking such a careful look at counter UAS systems, said Tom McMahon, senior vice president of advocacy and government relations at Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.
“They’re responsible for maintaining safety in the airspace but also responsible for safety on the ground if anything happens to them. That’s why it’s currently against the law to shoot down any aircraft, including a drone,” said McMahon.
Drone monitoring could all be part of the Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management system one day. In development by NASA, it would basically function like air traffic control for low-altitude aircraft. It could even leverage concepts like lanes, stop signs and traffic lights that govern vehicles on the ground today.
“There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done with the FAA and other government agencies as to which solutions are authorized for counter UAS,” said McMahon. “We’re at a stage where there is a lot of development going on. There are a lot of different types of solutions that depending on the situation would be advantageous. Right now the industry is working with the FAA to sort this out.”