The availability of small, affordable drones has given rise to an increase in hobby enthusiasts and brightened prospects for the technology’s commercial use. Already, drones are being used for videography, infrastructure inspections, crop monitoring and other uses, and widespread drone-supported delivery appears to be the next big opportunity.
Their potential for accidental infractions of no-fly zones and intentional misuse, however, has a lot of security officials worried.
That, in turn, has given rise to the development of Counter-Unmanned Aircraft Systems (C-UAS) initiatives, such as the nonprofit MITRE Corp.’s C-UAS Challenge, the Defense Department (DoD)’s Black Dart exercise and the DoD’s separate Joint Improvised-Threat Defeat Organization’s Hard Kill Challenge.
Reflecting its cybersecurity-related prowess, the state of Maryland, not surprisingly, is well represented at these competitions, with large defense contractors like Lockheed Martin, of Bethesda; and small companies and startups, such as Trifecta Global, of Beltsville (in partnership with TrustComs of France) and Columbia-based Department 13 entering the fight.
All three businesses, in fact, were among the eight finalists who competed for a $100,000 prize package in September at MITRE’s 2016 C-UAS Challenge, held at the U.S. Marine Corps Base in Quantico, Va.
Drones can provide a platform for everyday crimes that include voyeurism, identity theft, corporate spying and drug smuggling, among others, and their unchecked use poses risks to crowds from accidental crashes. In April 2015, a nuclear energy protestor landed a drone carrying radioactive sand on the Japanese prime minister’s roof, undetected.
On the military side, officials from the U.S. Army’s Asymmetric Warfare Group (AWG) at Fort Meade say the scope of the drone threat to modern warfighters is broad and multi-faceted.
“UAS can serve multiple purposes: as a direct-strike weapon after being modified, as an observation platform to call indirect fires, or as an intelligence-gathering platform,” they wrote in response to a query from The Business Monthly. “The low cost of UAS makes it impractical to use high-cost deterrents. And the low cost also enables an increased rate of innovation to using UAS [against our forces].”
Soldiers undergo situational awareness training that incorporates the UAS threat at their home station and at Combat Training Centers, they acknowledged, and this training continues while they are deployed overseas.
“All [response] options are considered, whether material or non-material,” AWG officials said. “Being able to adapt to the threat is key.”
The adaptability desired by AWG officials is being designed into many of the counter-drone solutions now being demonstrated and marketed to military and non-military end-users.
Capable of taking control of commercially available drones by manipulating the radio communications link, these software-based systems can be automated and programmed to follow a list prioritization of responses. Mitigation actions include commands to hover, land safely, retreat beyond a safety zone or return to the originating launch site, to name a few.
Department 13 plans to launch its first product, called Mesmer, this month. Mesmer provides a non-kinetic mitigation solution, meaning it does not use lasers or projectiles and does not physically disable or destroy an offensive drone.
During a field test outside company headquarters last month, the system performed flawlessly, causing a drone performing serpentine-like maneuvers to hover motionlessly, just seconds after a single keyboard keystroke had rendered the operator incapable of controlling it.
“Some of the challenges [with] kinetic-based solutions, such as directed energy laser systems or with jamming, are the unintended consequences,” CEO Jonathan Hunter said.
That is to say, jamming or destroying a drone does not mitigate any risk from bomblets or from radiological, biological or chemical agent payloads it may be carrying.
“I can tell a suspicious drone where to go, pull telemetry, and do things like passive video tapping, so I can see what that drone’s looking at without an operator knowing I’m looking at that video feed,” Hunter said.
Mesmer is also capable of isolating offensive drones that may be hiding in friendly drone formations, and can mitigate threats posed by drone swarms. With a range of about one kilometer, multiple units can be deployed in an array to extend the coverage area.
For the time being, only governments, large commercial entities and larger law enforcement departments can afford counter-drone systems.
“Most of these systems cost more than $1 million,” Hunter said, “but we expect that price point will soon drop dramatically.”
Early adapters will likely be limited to the DoD and allied forces, he said, but amusement parks, luxury cruise lines, sports stadiums and airports are also beginning to express interest.
“There are also legalities that we will have to abide by on the commercial market,” Hunter said. “We will need to work closely with the Federal Aviation Administration and the Federal Communications Commission to make sure everybody understands what Mesmer is and what it is not, and what it can and can’t do in terms of radio interference.”
In October 2015, Lockheed Martin unveiled a new counter-drone capability called ICARUS (Inbound, Controlled, Air-Releasable, Unrecoverable Systems), a stand-alone turnkey system comprising hardware and software.
Field tests confirm that its multi-spectral sensor system can quickly detect and characterize commercially available drones and, like Mesmer, use cyber electromagnetic activity to disable them or allow an operator to commandeer them and control their movements. Several systems have already been delivered.
“ICARUS is designed to serve both military and civilian agencies, and we continue to see growing interest from state law enforcement jurisdictions and private organizations,” said Lockheed Martin spokesperson Christopher Williams. “Our software is written to open standards, so if a customer doesn’t need all of ICARUS’s capabilities, we can provide just a particular detection/countermeasure module, or even just the software code they can port to their own hardware.”
The counter-drone solutions being developed in Maryland show promise as new tools that can help protect troops deployed in a war zone, keep drones away from airports, sports and entertainment venues where they pose a safety risk, or contribute to law enforcement efforts.
“UAS threats have the potential to rapidly evolve,” AWG officials said, which is true in the civilian realm, as well as in the military theater. “Therefore, it is important to anticipate the next threat evolution to stay ahead of our enemies.”