The Drone Wars: How Governments and Companies are Working to Fight Rogue Drones

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Rogue drones may seem comedic to the average person, but they have the potential to wreak havoc, costing companies and governments millions upon millions of dollars. In January of this year alone, flights out of Newark, Heathrow, and Gatwick were shut down for hours due to rogue drone activity. EasyJet, the largest airline operator at Gatwick said that the grounding of its flights cost the company $19M. Airport and in-air security are not the only threats posed by drones, though: drones are also being used to smuggle illicit goods across borders, into prisons, and to attack military bases. The director of the FBI said recently that the threat to the U.S. from attacks by rogue drones “is steadily escalating”.

However, as the threat escalates so too does the technology for combating the threat. NewtonX recently delved into the threat management approaches that authorities are taking through a series of expert interviews with academic drone experts, authorities who specialize in malicious drone use, and sky regulation authorities. The data and insights in this article are informed by these expert interviews.

The Counter-Drones: How Regulators are Protecting Against Unidentified Drones

Not all disruptive drones are necessarily controlled by malicious actors. The Newark airport sighting was likely an irresponsible civilian pilot. Instances such as this are a result of evolving regulations that could be resolved through manufacturers installing geofencing software to prevent drones from flying into restricted areas. However, hacking and malicious use of drones doesn’t have such a clear cut solution.

Most “Anti-drone” products (there are around 300 on the market currently) use one of three detection methods: radar, which identifies the radio frequencies drones use; infrared sensors; or acoustic sensors, which identify the sounds that drone motors make. To counterattack, most products use radio jamming, a way to use a transmission blocking signal to disrupt communications between the drone and its pilot. Some companies also use “spoofing,” which consists of impersonating the remote control by generating false signals to trick the drone, ultimately allowing the counter attacker to seize control and even download data from the drone.

In airfields, however, jamming needs to be extremely precise in order not to interfere with other electronic equipment and signals in planes or in airports. This precision is difficult to accomplish, however there are several companies, including one called Indra another called QinetiQ, that claim to be able to launch targeted counterattacks through what is known as a “soft kill”. The system uses infrared cameras to identify the type of drone once it’s been detected by radar, and then sweeps the radio spectrum to identify what signals the drone is using. This allows the company to attack only the signals relevant to the drone, instead of launching a sweeping attack that could harm other vital equipment.

These advanced systems will likely be rolled out at airports across the world in 2019. While some countries have tried alternative methods — the Netherlands infamously tried to use trained eagles to attack drones — the systems described above are not only the most effective and scalable from a technological point, but they also don’t require operators to be fully monitoring and aware of any drone at a given point.

The Future for Drones and Anti-Drones is Still Bright, Despite Barriers

As we wrote last year, President Trump and the FAA have been intent on establishing regulations to enable local drone delivery. Amazon, Boeing, Google, and a host of other tech giants have already invested in drone delivery, and it’s likely that it will be widely implemented by 2020. As this happens, anti-drone technology will also grow in tandem, so that corporate and personal drones do not get hacked, do not interfere with air traffic, and are trackable for security purposes. Considering that drones have been used for bombings and other violent warfare already, regulators will need to have a system for identifying unauthorized drones, and bringing them back down to earth in a safe and effective manner.

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