Science

Enter the Drone Killers: The New War in the Sky

The future may see ever-advancing technology battle ever-advancing consumer flying machines. Here's what that might look like.Monday, 3 June 2019

By Dominic Bliss
U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Briar Purty tests IXI Drone Killer during a training exercise in 2018 at Marine Corps Base Camp in Pendleton, California. The applications of UAV-jamming technology to prevent remote air strikes is increasingly relevant to disruptive drones over less threatening airspace.

How many aerial drones are there buzzing across the skies of our planet? Hundreds of thousands? Millions, perhaps? The United States Federal Aviation Administration predicts that by 2020, in America alone, there will be close to seven million in operation.

The vast majority are harmless but, in the hands of malicious operators, they can occasionally cause chaos – as we saw at Gatwick Airport last December when around 1,000 flights were cancelled or diverted over several days.

Andy Morabe is a director at IXI Technology, a California-based company which manufactures a drone-jamming device called Drone Killer. “We classify drone operators as the clueless, the careless and the criminal,” he says, placing the Gatwick mischief-makers into the latter category. 

Morabe explains how the technology of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), as drones are officially known, has advanced enormously in recent years, making devices smaller, cheaper and easier to use. Should a terrorist arm one with explosives or chemical weapons, that would obviously wreak havoc. But even a prankster flying one near an airport or a sports stadium can cause major disruption.

Disruption caused by reported drone sightings recently caused massive delays at Gatwick. Here photographers are shown watching the airspace over Gatwick's runway on December 21st 2018. The hunt for those responsible enlisted both the police and the army to address the level of disruption caused by the potential for devastating collisions. Arrests were carried out but no charges brought.

“Imagine if a drone got sucked into the intake of an aircraft upon take-off,” Morabe adds. “A small drone could take out an entire engine. That would be devastating. And the lithium batteries they use are explosives themselves.”

Recent tests by the UK government and by the University of Dayton, in Ohio, have proved that even very small drones can penetrate the wing structure or windscreens of aeroplanes. 

In recent years there have been just a handful of collisions reported between aircraft and drones (including one in New York City, one in Quebec, and one at London’s Heathrow Airport – none fatal), but dozens of near misses. 

In 2018, the US government set new restrictions on flying drones. The UK government, meanwhile, is due to introduce legislation on malicious drones later this year. 

With drones freely available on the consumer market – from toys, to more purposeful photographic machines – it is down to the user to ensure responsible use, though enforcement is challenging.
Reluctant to green-light departures and landings while the threat remained uncertain, the Gatwick drone disruptions of 2018 caused the cancellation or diversion of over 1,000 flights.

“Terrorist groups such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda have successfully weaponised drones on several occasions. ”

The problem for the authorities is that these devices are generally classified as aircraft. Simply blowing them out of the sky needs senior government authorisation, and could cause collateral damage. 

There are other methods to neutralise them. You can jam their signals, as the Drone Killer does. You can do what’s called spoofing – tricking their GPS receivers into thinking they are in a different location. You can use lasers to dazzle their optical cameras with which the operators guide them. You can capture them in a net fired by a gun. You can even set trained birds of prey on them. Although, as Morabe says, “the drone’s propeller can damage their talons and they get finicky”.

He favours the signal-jamming method, as featured in his Drone Killer. Developed three years ago, it is a battery-powered hand-held device which transmits low-power radio frequency waveforms similar to those used by drone operators, distorting the data the drone receives and, according to IXI Technology, forcing it “into fail-safe mode” and causing it to “return to its point of origin or slowly descend” to the ground.

The manufacturer claims the waveforms have a range of around 1,000 metres but no effect on broadband or mobile phone signals, or other radio frequencies.

Drone Killers costs US$33,000 apiece. Currently Morabe makes around $2million a year in sales but he expects this to increase to $100million a year as the likes of airports, sports stadia and power stations increasingly feel the threat of drone attacks. 

The trend to obtain images such as this over urban areas has led to concerns over safety, privacy and security – although the legality on flying drones in these areas remains a grey area in many countries.

His device is already being used by Japan’s Ministry of Defence, India’s National Security Guard, Thailand’s Royal Thai Air Force and half a dozen or so law enforcement agencies in the United States – in California, Arizona and Nevada to protect events at sports stadia and support security forces on the US-Mexico border

For security reasons he can’t give precise details, although he does paint a frightening worst-case scenario of how terrorists might arm drones with explosives or poisons. 

“Agencies are worried drones could be armed with [a particular opioid],” he suggests. “Just a teaspoon can kill a roomful of people. A drone carrying one or two kilograms can kill a whole stadium of people.” 

Morabe admits his Drone Killer is not a failsafe deterrent since there are so many frequencies drones can operate on, and it’s impossible to jam all of them.

"The problem for the authorities is that these devices are generally classified as aircraft. Simply blowing them out of the sky needs senior government authorisation."
Amateur use of consumer drones over urbanised areas is becoming more commonplace – with drones spotted entering airspace causing major disruptions, and experts worry weaponising drones could be potentially devastating.
Most drones are controlled via smartphone interface, which allows the operator to 'see' what the drone sees. Jamming technology seeks to disrupt the connection between the drone and operator.

For that reason, he suggests that particularly vulnerable sites such as airports or nuclear power stations should defend themselves with a mixture of anti-drone devices.

James Cross is director of a Northumberland-based company called OpenWorks Engineering, manufacturers of two models of anti-drone net guns called Skywall 100 (which is hand-held) and Skywall 300 (which is vehicle or building-mounted). Each uses compressed air to launch a plastic capsule containing a net which opens up to capture the drone before deploying a parachute and dragging it safely down to the ground. Targeting technology takes into account the flying speed of the drone so as to intercept on the correct trajectory.

The Skywall 300 model hasn’t yet gone on sale but the Skywall 100, launched in 2016, has seen over 50 deployed worldwide so far. Its first outing was in November 2016 when Germany’s federal police were charged with protecting President Obama on a state visit to Berlin. 

“They deployed it as he walked down the steps of Air Force One,” Cross says. “And they used it around the city, on rooftops and out of the back of vehicles.” 

 

Video: Watch a drone collide with an aircraft wing in lab conditions

The weapon was also employed at the Berlin Air Show in April 2018, and at a security conference in Hamburg in December 2016, and by police in Washington DC at The Pentagon. It has been used during other visits by heads of state, and at airports and nuclear power stations. 

Cross says he expects to sell Skywall 300 models to the US military and European agencies later this year. For security reasons he can’t reveal if a parachute has ever actually been launched in anger yet.

There are other British companies developing counter-drone technology, including jamming devices such as Beechwood Equipment’s DroneGun, Kirintec’s Sky Net, and Chess Dynamics’ AUDS (Anti-UAV Defence System). The latter now features at Gatwick Airport as part of a reported £5million counter-drone system installed in the fallout of the December debacle.

But can our airports ever be 100 per cent impervious to malicious drones? Morabe points out how the world’s major airports cover enormous surface areas, and are impossible to shield completely from drone attack. Gatwick, for example, is spread across 674 hectares of land with a perimeter six miles long; Heathrow across 1,214 hectares with around nine miles of perimeter. Denver International, the second largest airport in the world by land area, covers over 13,000 hectares.

Security forces examine evidence of a drone-borne explosion in Caracas, Venezuela in August 2018, when President Nicolas Maduro was reportedly the victim of an assassination attempt by 'drone-type flying devices the contained an explosive charge.'

As Morabe explains, even with hundreds of costly counter-drone devices and security staff, there will always be gaps in the defence – space for small drones to slip through. For 30 years he worked with the US Navy, consulting on weapons defence systems. 

“I’ve worked with a lot of defence companies,” he says. “I’ve worked with Lockheed Martin. I’ve worked with the radar system that's on board our ships, and we always have holes in our coverage.”

Even the UK government admits it cannot provide failsafe protection. Ben Wallace is Minister for Security and Economic Crime. “Advancing counter-drone technology is a complex challenge,” he told National Geographic UK. “There are many counter-drone systems entering the market, and we are clear that there is no silver bullet effective against all possible malicious and illegal drone uses.”

The government is currently debating a drone regulation bill, with an obligatory registration scheme for drone operators expected later this year. None of which, however, is likely to deter criminals intent on causing chaos. 

An unmanned aerial system 'hunter-killer' drone captures a Phantom 3 drone in its net mid-flight at the Nevada National Security Site in 2016. Anti-drone technology is advancing in tandem with the drones themselves. Andy Morabe: “It’s a game of electronic warfare. It’s an arms race.”

The Gatwick culprits didn't actually cause any physical damage – they were just pranksters, it seems. But terrorist groups such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda have successfully weaponised drones on several occasions. In a separate incident in Venezuela, in August last year, drones detonated explosives close to that country’s President Maduro, in what the government claim was an assassination attempt.

Both Morabe and Cross warn that drone technology is constantly advancing, making existing deterrents redundant.

“As the bad guys improve their drone technology, so we invent counter-measures,” Morabe says. “It’s a game of electronic warfare. It’s an arms race.”

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