Counter-Drone realities, strategies and technologies
As little as two to three years ago, if you told government security officials and defence policy makers that aerial drones (hereafter “drones”) will pose a threat to national security and public safety this prediction might have fallen on deaf ears.
Like family cars that are so often used to attack civilians on city streets and carry large quantities of explosives, drones are easily purchased on the high street or the internet, relatively cheap and easy to operate. As the US FBI Director, Christopher A. Wray, stated about drones: “The threat is palpable and immediate…the expectation is (that) it’s coming here imminently.”
In 2017, a Goldman Sachs drone market report predicted the retail market to be upwards of $2.5 billion. The US has the largest commercial drone market (worth $17.5 billion), followed by China (worth $4.5 billion) and – surprisingly – the UK (worth $3.5 billion). With one million drones entering the airspace each month worldwide, the prospect of securing airspace from illicit drones will soon become a daunting task – if it is not already.
The increasingly obvious need for counter-measures to ensure public safety is imperative as commercially available drones become faster, smaller, cheaper with the ability to carry a considerable and deadly payload.
The Homeland Security and military sectors have the largest portion of the anti-drone market because of their increasing presence across the spectrum of malicious uses, including the following categories that show why an affordable, flexible, meaningful, mobile and integrated counter-drone system is required:
Terrorism & Political Assassinations – many drones can carry 3kg without losing manoeuvrability and range. This means a lightweight CBRNE weapon could be delivered by a terror group or hostile state security branch in carrying out an attack via a hobbyist’s drone.
Critical Infrastructures & Prisons – as covered previously in MILITARY TECHNOLOGY and SAFETY & SECURITY INTERNATIONAL, drones are the vehicle to smuggle contraband, narcotics, and weapons into prisons. This is now a major international challenge, from Latin America to the UK.
Surveillance & Espionage – this includes using drones for any form of “malevolent reconnaissance” to gather illicit intelligence – on critical infrastructures, organisations or a person – with the intention of causing damage, harm or death.
Airports, Depots & Seaports – there are already numerous incidents of drones straying into commercial and military airspace; drones pose a threat to overall “port” security in terms of criminal activities alongside creating dangers to passenger and cargo aircraft during take-offs and landings.
Public Spaces & Events – through the use of drones and social media, a stadium’s broadcast air-time is a commercial goldmine. Today, even a mildly ambitious child can operate a drone flying over a stadium and live stream the event over the internet. A crowded stadium or public event is also an ideal terror target, whereby a lethal payload can severely injure or kill countless people in a matter of minutes, from take-off to hovering above or landing on the target.
Drone Market Trends and Forecasts
According to a recent report from market analyst house MarketsandMarkets, the anti-drone market is expected to grow from $342.6million in 2016 to $1,6bilion by 2023, at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 25.9% between 2017 and 2023. The market is mainly driven by factors such as increased security breach incidences and increased terrorism and illicit activities. HLS and defence suppliers hold the largest share of the anti-drone market in 2016. This “vertical” captured the largest share of the overall anti-drone market in 2016, while 2017 is still being calculated.
The use of drones for border trespassing, smuggling, and spying continues to increase. The resulting demand for an efficient anti-drone system is expected to rise in the short-term in the HLS and defence sector.
Drone detection-disruption solutions are currently prevalent and expected to be the fastest growing application in the anti-drone market. The anti-drone market for the detection and disruption application is expected to grow at the highest CAGR during the forecast period. This is mainly due to the major applications of detection and disruption systems in the military and defence and homeland security sectors, wherein the unauthorised drones entering into the prohibited area of any country are detected as well as disrupted on the spot.
Depending on the kind of area and organisation, requiring a protective shield will determine the type of system required. The counter-drone systems are divided into two categories: Active and Passive.
The active system has the ability to deal with the drone with a four-part strategy:
- Detection – radar is used to detect drones that enter a pre-defined no-flight area, even at low altitudes. Rotating radar has the advantage of a 360°radius opposed to a fixed radar system that only captures a drone from the specified direction.
- Acquisition – the Electro Optical System provides detection, recognition and identification of the type of drone and its precise location. Using this system enables the operator to lock onto the drone and continue to track it until it is within a jamming radius.
- Disruption / Neutralisation – the RF jammer comprises of several antennas that are used to jam the frequency range of the drones video & telemetry, C&C and navigation capabilities, disabling its functions.
- Destruction – while not many systems on the market offer this, it should be an option made available to the customer. It is important to remember that whatever goes up, must come down. When destroying a drone, it is important to remember that it will fall from the sky and crash land onto some place, something, or someone.
The passive system employs two simple steps in its strategic mission when protecting public facilities and stadiums:
- Detection: the system detects the drone and drone operator using an array of directional antennas.
- Disruption: a jamming unit is used to block the drone’s communication channels that will disable the drone or send it home.
The passive system cannot discern the drone type or operator. As a standalone system, it does not immobilise the drone without integrating other systems first.
Challenges to Threats
With very few exceptions, the following points are the challenges facing the vast majority of counter-drone systems today.
1. Detection – radar and other detection methods have “blind spots” and will miss intruders. Not being completely effective means the costs of damage or death will be high.
2. Legality of Interdiction – shockingly, there are a several laws already in place that currently prohibit using counter-drone technology or creates legal and financial liability when they are used.
3. Programmable Drones – this drone type has no form of communication system; hence, it is hard to detect and there is no way to jam it.
4. Homemade Drones – these might use special / unknown technology and, therefore, are unpredictable and could be “invisible” to detection.
5. Satellite communication technology – they use special frequencies and are near impossible to jam. GPS is not included here.
According to recent stories in MILITARY TECHNOLOGY and SAFETY & SECURITY INTERNATIONAL, one of the biggest 2017 new security threats were weaponised commercially available drones.
One example is a Parrot AR drone, costing less than $200, that may be easily hijacked, proving to be an excellent weapon in the hands of a reckless hacker.
Countries are now investing in the development of counter-drone systems. The US military is actively trying to develop capabilities to stop drones on the battlefield, awarding $80 million in drone-defence contracts in February 2018 alone. In this context, Radio Hill Technologies, from Portland (OR), has developed the DroneBuster (http://www.monch.com/mpg/news/air/3312-radio-hill-drone-buster-auvsi.html). Another leading player in anti-drone development is Israel. While the big international players from Israel launch their new products, there are a host of smaller innovators with cutting edge solutions. One such solution is the SKYLOCK system from the Avnon Group, which entered the counter-drone market over a year ago, developed and successfully installed several SKYLOCK systems in Asia Pacific, with an eye on some key EMEA customers in civil aviation.
According to CEO Tomer Avnon during a discussion about the counter-drone market and Israeli innovations: “Israeli-made products in the defence arena have worldwide recognition and are in high demand. Our innovations are born out of necessity – meaning that we are forced to deal with threats from a perspective of ‘when will it happen?’ instead of ‘what if it will happen?’ as in other countries. Also, I find that prices and delivery times for our anti-drone solutions are competitive and affordable because they are created as a necessity. So, the ideals of quality, speed and cost effectiveness are in-built.”
Continuing to use SKYLOCK as an example, this system provides a complete protective anti-drone shield consisting of: a Radar system, RF Detection and Electro-optical system; Active jamming to block drones’ RF/GPS signal; and, uniquely, a laser to burn, bring down or destroy a drone at 800 metres.
Avnon assures that: “While our anti-drone system can detect an approaching drone over 3km distance, Skylock’s combination of radar, RF detection and Electro-optics provides a more reliable and accurate detection. Not all anti-drone systems have a laser as a neutralising method against drones, and our laser burner solution looks at the future threats of pre-programmed drones.”
There is still some uncertainty regarding civil and HLS-defence international legal conventions on the use of counter-drone systems. However, it is clear this is an issue in need of addressing – and quickly.
Whilst there are still many advancements to be made in improving counter-drone technologies, it is crystal clear this is not a threat that is going away. If we want to protect our borders and strengthen our internal security to ensure public safety, then it is crucial for policy and decision-makers in government bodies to recognise that anti-drone systems will play a fundamental role in keeping our skies safe.
Stacy Dotan is the Business Development and Marketing Director at TAR Ideal