ROBOTICS AND AUTONOMOUS SYSTEMS
JUST IN: New Counter-Drone Weapon Works from a Distance
Aim Defence photo
SYDNEY — A display shows a small commercial drone darting around. Then, tracking dots illuminate on the drone as the targeting system locks on. An operator sitting at a laptop and controlling a joystick fires a high-energy laser that disables the camera on the drone. The next shot fries one of the arms on the quadcopter, sending it pinwheeling to the ground.
What was novel about the demonstration of AIM Defence’s Fractl counter-drone system was the operator was sitting at a booth at the Indo Pacific 2023 International Maritime Exposition in Sydney, and the target drone was 900 kilometers away at a range in Melbourne. The system used the convention center's Wi-Fi to connect with the targeting and laser hardware that shot down the drone.
AIM Defence co-founder Jae Daniel said the impetus behind Fractl was to provide a compact, affordable system that can counter Group 1 drones.
“Our target market here is for temporary platform protection or area protection, as well as putting onto vehicles,” he said. “What we're really trying to go after is, how do we immediately counter the threat of this growing weaponized drone problem that we're seeing across every conflict zone?”
Most of the solutions other vendors are developing are exquisite and expensive and are also large, high-power systems targeting larger drones, he said. The Fractl will cost customers around $650,000 per unit.
“What we're showing today is a fully battery-powered, self-contained system with remote gimbal heads,” he said. “It's a fiber laser, directed-energy system designed to provide drone protection at the one-to-two-kilometer range.”
The system consists of a tracker and laser on a tripod and then a box about the size of a footlocker housing the battery and other electronics. The whole system weighs in at about 50 kilograms.
“We typically roll this system out within half an hour,” he said. “So, it's actually vehicle born. We're working towards having [it] operate on the vehicle. At the moment, we take it off the vehicle for operation.”
The operator who conducted the live-kill demonstration had about a minute of training on the system, Daniel said.
“We've spent a lot of effort trying to make this a user-friendly system,” he continued. “We don't want to add a huge amount of burden to the warfighter. We want to create a system that's a drop-in, simple solution to what is an immediate critical threat.”
While the system might be simple to operate and integrate with other command-and-control systems, the technology inside Fractl is highly complex.
“Rather than using a traditional algorithms-based approach or neural net-based approach, we actually have a blend of about 12 different track algorithms that have a vote towards where to position on the drone,” he said. “We're able to follow a drone going 100 kilometers an hour, a kilometer away, basically below the horizon to within three millimeters.”
In testing, the system has been able to track and shoot down every drone, he said.
“There are situations where the tracking system won't work, but that's typically the same situation where the drone won't be able to see you,” he added.
Directed energy is a new technology, and the defense sector is still working though the risks, operational scenarios and rules of engagement for the technology, he said.
AIM employs a force-escalation pathway with its counter-drone technology, he said. It starts with a blinding technology, or the Dazlr.
“What that does is, if someone's got a $1,000 drone and they happen to live near an airport, and they fly the drone up, we don't have to burn it out of the sky and cause trouble there — we temporarily blind the drone,” he said. However, if the drone continues toward the airport or a military base, then it’s likely a threat actor that “justifies that more risky use of directed energy.
“One of the novelties and advantages of our system is rather than needing 100 kilowatts, we can get away with a few kilowatts, so we actually reduce that safety case significantly by the precision of our targeting system,” he said.
Currently, Fractl is used in shoot-and-scoot scenarios, Daniel said. “Within the next six months, we'll be rolling out the stabilized version,” for use on vehicles and potentially surface vessels.
However, the system could end up being a high-value target on the battlefield, he noted. “In reality, you want to put these places where people don't want to be, and you will use it as [a] base defense or vehicle protection away from your vehicle.”