Defense Industry Developing Systems to Defeat Enemy Drones

By Yasmin Tadjdeh

Unmanned aircraft that were once owned exclusively by advanced militaries are now commercially available. Experts have warned that an unmanned aerial system flown by an adversary could easily have explosives or other hazardous payloads strapped onto them. But knocking out a potentially dangerous aircraft isn’t always the best answer, especially if it is near bystanders, they said.

Experts and company executives envision a future where new technology employed by the military or government agencies could spot rogue or hostile drones, identify them and even commandeer or stop them mid-air.

For less than $500, hobbyists can easily purchase a UAV that has enough capability to do damage, said Doug Booth, director of business development for Lockheed Martin’s cyber solutions division.

Group 1 drones — small systems that weigh less than 20 pounds — are readily available to the general public and can pack a punch if weaponized, he said.

“It can’t carry real heavy payloads, but you’re talking five to six pounds,” he said. “It can fly for an hour or two depending on the battery or gas you put in it, and it may not have real high-end imagery payloads but it does have a significant camera capability.”

Commercially available unmanned aerial systems could be used to collect intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance information. Further, they could easily be used as an airborne improvised explosive device, he added.

“That’s the threat that we’re concerned about,” he said. “Talking with customers, it is one of the highest threats, one of the highest concerns that they have right now.”

There have been many high profile mishaps with drones, including when a UAV crashed in front of German Chancellor Angela Merkel in September or when a remotely piloted aircraft fell onto the lawn of the White House in early 2015, Booth said.

“What this says is … there’s no means to control this platform. It’s a Class 1. It’s able to fly wherever it wants with payloads and there doesn’t seem to be a great system to control … and defeat them,” he said. That led Lockheed to begin developing Icarus about a year ago, he said.

The system can detect, identify and defeat Group 1 UAVs, he said. The package consists of three parts. The front-end component is a suite of sensors with radio frequency, acoustic and imagery detectors. “Those three sensors we believe are very capable to sense and detect that there is a drone in the area,” Booth said.

Those sensors feed information to a database where radio frequency, acoustic and imagery signatures are stored. That enables the company to quickly detect a UAV and in some cases identify the specific system, he said. “We can quickly say, ‘Hey, it’s a drone. It’s not a plane. It’s not helicopter. It’s not a bird. It’s not a lawnmower,’ based on this signatures database that we have on the back end.”

The last component is a cyber, non-kinetic payload that can “defeat” the UAV, he said. The system can “drop the unit out of the sky,” disable some onboard payloads such as cameras or it can take control of the system.

“If something is flying in … a crowded area where there are a lot of people, you may not want to just drop it right there because it could still cause harm,” he said. “Probably what you want to do is take control of it and fly it to a safe area, like maybe a bomb box.”

Icarus is a ground-based system that can be mounted around a perimeter or fastened onto a vehicle. It has also been tested on Lockheed Martin-built UAVs but the acoustic sensor’s capability can be degraded in such a scenario.

“It doesn’t always work well. You might have some interference from an acoustics perspective, because a UAV is also noisy itself,” he said. “If you’re talking about drone-on-drone type of combat you may not want to use that sensor.”

Lockheed decided to invest in non-kinetic, counter-UAV technology after talks with U.S. military officials, Booth said. They described such technology as a priority.

Peter Singer, a strategist and senior fellow who focuses on robotics at the New America Foundation, a Washington, D.C. think tank, said at least 86 countries have UAV capabilities.

“The once virtual monopoly that the U.S. had on drones is long gone,” he said. “You have a wide variety of non-state actors that have shown off the capability from ISIS to Hezbollah. Indeed, the Iraq/Syria war is interesting in that every single one of the conflict actors — whether it’s the U.S. to the Syrian government to ISIS — have all flown drones at some point.”

In this new landscape, the military and industry are seeking a variety of ways to counter the threat, he said.

Battelle recently showed off its DroneDefender system that can stop a UAV.

“The DroneDefender is a man-portable, lightweight, very easy to operate … non-kinetic, counter-UAS … solution for the challenge that many of our government agencies are facing with the prolific commercial drone market increasing,” said Dan Stamm, project lead for DroneDefender.

The system works by disrupting the control link between a remotely located pilot and the UAV.

“It basically makes the drone think that it has gone out of range from the pilot, and so the drone enters into a standard safety protocol,” he said. These protocols can either make the system hover in place, land “gracefully” or return to its operator. It doesn’t cause any permanent damage to the system, he added.

Alex Morrow, technical director for DroneDefender, said the system cannot commandeer the drone and cannot choose which three safety protocols it will apply. “That’s completely up to the manufacturer of the drone and the drone pilot.”

While other systems, like Icarus, can control a UAV, DroneDefender engineers purposely avoided that aspect, Stamm said.

“We are aware of some alternatives and are considering how we might include those in future development options, but that is something we have purposely stayed away from,” he said. “We see that as a reasonably high level of added complexity … and the goal for our system is to make it light, very low complexity, very low level of training required and very inexpensive relative to competing systems.”

No price data has been released yet, but Battelle is trying to keep the system inexpensive to match the low cost of many Group 1 unmanned aircraft, Stamm said.

DroneDefender is targeted toward federal agencies and the military. The general public cannot operate it without a license from the Federal Communications Commission. So far, demonstrations of the system have been conducted by federal agencies on federal property.

Kelley Sayler, an associate fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington, D.C. think tank, said the U.S. military’s work with non-kinetic systems is still in its infancy.

The military is just beginning to think about how it can “defend against drones and the threats posed by drones,” she said. “I think definitely the military is looking at non-kinetic systems … disrupting the communication links with the operator, targeting GPS.”

The non-kinetic option is “preferable particularly when you’re thinking about civilian environments where there are a lot of civilians around [and] you don’t want parts flying off of a drone,” Sayler said.

Additionally, preserving the system would help during an investigation to see who the system belonged to, she said.

However, non-kinetic solutions won’t be the best option for every scenario, she said. They wouldn’t be effective against a system that is switching from direct line of sight communications with an operator to inertial navigation. Inertial navigation is when all sensors are on board the system and it isn’t communicating externally, she explained.

“That’s going to be a real challenge in the future,” she said. “If you’re looking at a non-kinetic option like signals jamming, GPS jamming, it’s just not going to be effective.”

Most hobbyists’ drones use GPS navigation or direct line of sight communications, but systems that are built by hand or tinkered with could use gyroscopes or other forms of inertial navigation.

“It’s not something you’re going to be able to use for the entire flight of the drone — you would still need a communications link — but it is something that you could switch over to for … the last minute of the flight or so and the drone will drift some from the initial destination. … But if it’s not extremely important to have precision in that flight, it’s definitely still an option,” she said.

Singer said it still remains to be seen if non-kinetic options will take off. More demonstrations are needed.

“Can you get the same capability from a 50-caliber machine gun?” he asked. “We will see a wide mix of high-tech and low-tech responses to this.”

Photo: Thinkstock

Topics: C4ISR, Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles

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