Pentagon Organizing Contests to Counter Enemy Drones

By Jon Harper
DJI Phantom drone

Photos: iStock

The U.S. military is turning to contests that are open to nontraditional vendors to find innovative solutions to the growing danger posed by small enemy drones.

The upcoming challenges — one hosted by SOFWERX and the other by the Joint Improvised-Threat Defeat Organization — are focused on countering the types of unmanned aerial systems that can be purchased at brick-and-mortar stores or online. More and more of them are appearing on the battlefield, according to defense officials.

“U.S. forces are reporting lots of contact with this kind of UAS,” Tony Davis, the director of acquisition agility at Special Operations Command, said in an interview with National Defense.

The Islamic State is using this type of equipment extensively, noted Army Lt. Gen. Michael Shields, the director of JIDO.

“ISIL is probably one of the most prolific terror groups when it comes to innovation in improvised weapons and then developing tactics to incorporate these innovations,” Shields said.

“One of their most dangerous innovations has been the introduction of commercially available drones, drone technology and technical components to the battlefield,” he added.

They are using them for a variety of missions including intelligence collection, support to ground forces, coordinating fire support and maneuver, adjusting indirect fire and facilitating improvised explosive device attacks. The group has also embraced them as a propaganda tool and a weapons delivery platform, Shields noted.

“It is their precision-guided munition,” he said. “They’re well integrated with their combat operations and … they definitely pose a threat to U.S. and coalition forces, not to mention the homeland.”

Pentagon officials are hoping that contests open to nontraditional vendors will yield new technologies and methods for taking on these enemy assets.

SOFWERX, an organization that helps connect SOCOM with technology innovators in the private sector, hosts monthly OpenWERX challenges to pursue innovative solutions to problems that the command is facing.

The outfit recently set up a prize contest to pit technologists against commercially available small drones.

“The idea is by tapping into nontraditional partners we may get ideas that we aren’t getting or aren’t getting fast enough from traditional defense industry or from within,” said Davis. The initiative aims to draw in academia, startup businesses and “just the guy that likes to work on stuff on his weekends in his garage.”

Like the other challenges that SOFWERX hosts, this one stems from input provided by commandos out in the field.

“We’re actually pulling these OpenWERX challenges from conversations with our operators,” said Davis. “This [counter-UAS challenge] was … something they’re interested in.”

Contestants in the Ghost Busters: DJI Phantom Exploits contest have been tasked to find as many vulnerabilities as possible in DJI Phantom 3 and 4 drones including command and control and onboard video subsystems. These commercially available UAS fall into the Group 1 category, meaning they weigh 20 pounds or less.

The technology can be purchased on Amazon and other retail websites.

Teams have been tasked to produce exploits and delivery mechanisms that can degrade the effectiveness of systems and components used for navigation, flight and payload usage. Technologies that would enable U.S. forces to crash an enemy drone or take control of it are also desired, according to a SOFWERX description of the challenge.

Davis anticipates that teams will primarily be conducting cyber attacks against drones. For this competition “we’re mostly talking about cyber vulnerabilities and cyber threats,” he said.

In addition to finding new ways to combat enemy unmanned aerial vehicles, SOCOM also sees the event as an opportunity to learn how to better protect U.S. military drones.

“There’s a variety of defensive or offensive applications for these potential vulnerabilities,” Davis said. “We’re just kind of digging in a little bit into what those might be and then sharing that knowledge across our community.”

The judges will “look at kind of the novelty and complexity of the vulnerability they identify, but also … the number of them,” he added. “If there’s a team that has 10 new vulnerabilities they identify that nobody has ever seen before, then they’re going to compete very well.”

Participants are required to use open source technology. All new development including hardware, electronics and software, must be publicly and freely available under an appropriate open source license before judging begins.

“That also allows us to have some rights for reuse of the intellectual property without the kind of contractual baggage that a traditional contract would bring,” Davis said.

Teams were asked to produce a 10-minute video presentation showcasing their capabilities. The next round will be a Q&A session where the judges can ask follow-on questions. Final judging is slated for early February.

The first, second and third place teams will win $3,000, $2,000 and $1,000, respectively.
SOFWERX is designed to be an open and collaborative space that “makes it easy to come in and share ideas with us and do business with us,” Davis said. Whether the counter-UAS challenge will lead to procurement is yet to be determined.

“We’re not sure what we’re going to get back,” he said. “We’ve had challenges where it’s just been, ‘Hey, that’s some great information. Let’s share that across the community. Thank you for your support of national defense.’”

Others, such as a recent one involving bow bumper technology for SOCOM boats, have resulted in acquisition efforts geared toward the winners, he noted.

“We’re actually working to try to award them a contract to deliver us a prototype of the system they designed so we can test it in the [warfighting] theater,” Davis said. “It just kind of depends on the particular challenge and kind of what our assessment is of the output.”

Meanwhile, the threat posed by ISIL’s drones continues to grow. Their capability comprises multiple types of aerial vehicles including fixed wing and quadcopters. They are typically outfitted with a variety of camera and sensor packages and other capability enhancing components, Shields said.

The demand for small drones in the global UAS market is driving the rapid development of these types of capabilities, he added.

“Two years ago we began to see these commercial drones appearing on the battlefields in Syria and Iraq,” he said. “Today the drones are commonly used by ISIL. They’re ubiquitous, they’re cheap, they’re not hard to learn to use.”

The militants have demonstrated the ability to synchronize multiple systems for high-profile attacks and other activities, he said.

JIDO’s upcoming Counter-UAS Hard Kill Challenge is part of the organization’s aggressive outreach to both traditional and nontraditional partners in industry and academia to tackle the problem, Shields said.

“These challenges are important because … there’s a lot of advertised technical solutions and capability out there globally,” he said. “This is a chance for vendors and others to demonstrate them against a determined adversary.”

The event will give JIDO an opportunity to evaluate the current state of technology to defeat small rotary and fixed-wing unmanned aerial systems, Shields said.

For this competition, hard kill was defined as “the physical interruption of a UAS’s ability to maintain lift and continue its mission via the direct capture of the UAS, the physical destruction of the airframe, and/or the ability to disrupt the power to the airframe.”

There will be three phases of increasing difficulty, according to a JIDO outline of the event.

Phase one is an initial assessment to determine if a team’s technology can actually hard kill a stationary rotary or fixed-wing Group 1 UAS at distances up to 1,000 meters within a given time window. Phase two will pit teams against moving systems at various distances. Phase three will test their ability to take on multiple drones engaged in swarm missions.

Points will be awarded based on kill times and distances, and the number of UAS destroyed.

At least 14 teams that meet technology readiness level thresholds will be participating in the challenge. JIDO expects the hard kill technologies to include projectiles, directed energy weapons and netting. “We’re open to any capability that accomplishes the tasks they’ve been given,” Shields said.

The event is slated to take place near the end of February at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico. No monetary prizes are to be awarded but the top performing teams could be in a position to do business with the Defense Department afterward. “It will depend on the outcomes,” Shields said. “There is a means for us to pursue capability following the challenge.” 

JIDO views rapid acquisition as critical for keeping up with the enemy drone threat. That could benefit nontraditional vendors wary of the Pentagon’s often cumbersome procurement process.

“When you take a look at the rapid ability of ISIL to innovate and their iterative process in how quickly they’re able to do this, that rapid prototyping is going to be the way to go for us as opposed to some of the more longer term, programs of record-type of solutions,” Shields said.

The urgency is compounded by the fact that the technology, tactics, techniques and procedures used by the Islamic State have spread to places like North Africa and Afghanistan, and now numerous other extremist groups are using them, he said.

Militants are also capable of building their own drones and adding new capabilities to existing ones, he said. “We’ve seen the rapid accrual of incidents across Iraq and Syria, which we believe points to an extensive research-and-development and acquisition enterprise.”

The cost of the technology is coming down, a worrisome trend for those concerned about proliferation. Significant UAS capability can be purchased commercially for less than $1,000. The systems can be equipped with electro-optical/infrared sensors, and run on a variety of operating systems, Shields noted.

Defeating them is no easy task, according to U.S. defense officials.

The Army’s counter-UAS strategy, released in October, stated that smaller unmanned aerial systems “are less effectively countered by existing integrated air and missile defense capabilities … [and] are more challenging targets to consistently defeat due to their ease of proliferation and low/slow kinematic profile, especially in congested airspace with standoff surveillance capabilities and limited detection/engagement windows.”

Group 1 drones have a small radar signature that makes it difficult to identify them, Davis said. They are also relatively quiet.

“They do offer some unique challenges in terms of seeing them and reacting to them in a reasonable amount of time,” he said.

JIDO is working with a broad range of industry and academic partners on the counter-UAS mission set, Shields noted.

“We are open to all comers that have got technology that they think can help us,” he added. “If some student from Carnegie Mellon came up with a solution, then we would pull it in and look at it.”

In addition to supporting Central Command, which is leading the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, JIDO is partnering with the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies when it comes to science and technology development.

“We focus, of course, on supporting the warfighter but there’s certainly a domestic piece as well,” he said.

Drones pose a threat to the homeland, a danger that is expected to increase as commercial technology proliferates in the United States, he noted. Shields recently visited Northern Command, which is responsible for defending the continental United States and U.S. territories in North America, to discuss the problem.

“From a science and technology perspective ... these technologies can be leveraged across a broad forum with interagency partners,” he said. “Law enforcement can benefit as well and we benefit from their S&T too.”

Topics: Defense Innovation, Unmanned Air Vehicles

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