Drone detection and deterrence

Can tech deliver a drone defense?

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have proved to be a serious headache for airspace regulators.  While business have pushed the Federal Aviation Administration to more quickly integrate UAVs into the national airspace given their potential economic impact – estimated to be in the billions –  hobbyists are currently permitted to fly drones, albeit under significant restraints. Recent incidents – such as the devices that crashed on the grounds of the White House, the video that surfaced recently of a machine gun firing from a quadcopter and incidents in California where drone-flying hobbyists disrupted firefighting efforts – have prompted a search for stronger detection and even kinetic defensive measures to thwart such nuisances or potential threats. 

Government agencies at both the federal and state level are attempting to manage the threat from drones –   initially through education. The FAA, for its part, has issued a voluntary compliance and information campaign regarding flying drones, especially into fire zones. The Department of Homeland Security circulated a bulletin on July 31 to several local law enforcement jurisdictions warning of the threat drones can pose. In California, legislators have gone a step farther and proposed a bill that would not only ban all non-sanctioned UAVs over active fires, but provide immunity to firefighters who damage or destroy such drones and permit law enforcement to jam their signals.  

Detecting these small devices, which under FAA regulations must weigh less than 55 pounds, is difficult.  While radio-wave detection tends to be the most accurate for larger aircraft, most drones -- like the piloted gyrocopter that famously landed at the U.S. Capitol -- evade detection because they are too small and fly too low.        

Some drones use geofencing to avoid designated no-fly zones. PrecisionHawk, a private drone company in North Carolina, recently demonstrated its solution for monitoring and detecting drones deployed by agriculture or oil companies for getting a better view of their assets.  The system sent an alert to the operator’s smartwatch when the drone flew too close to a predetermined no-fly zone.  During the demonstration, the operator attempted to fly into this region, but an autopilot feature overrode the operator’s commands and took the aircraft away from the no-fly zone.

Looking ahead, NASA is working with the FAA on a system to monitor UAVs in the national air space.  NASA’s proposal will seek to adapt ground traffic rules – with lanes, stop signs and lights – for low-flying drones.  More specifically, the proposal will provide “airspace design, corridors, dynamic geo-fencing, severe weather and wind avoidance, congestion management, terrain avoidance, route planning and re-routing, separation management, sequencing and spacing and contingency management.”  NASA even held a three-day conference at the end of July focused solely on safely integrating UAVs as part of its proposed traffic-management system.    

And when rogue drones are detected, what can be done to neutralize them if they pose a threat, or are interfering with government activity?  Technology challenges are hindering development of an efficient, accurate and legal method to guard against unwanted and unsafe hobbyist drone activity. 

A jammer could work by blocking either the radio waves or GPS signals drones use to navigate in the air and communicate with the operator on the ground, but as PC World pointed out, signal jammers are banned by federal law because they indiscriminately jam signals of most devices within their sphere of influence. 

Hacking could also be an option. Many off-the-shelf hobby drones are extremely vulnerable to software attacks.  These commercial drones “were constructed to be easy to connect to.  So they weren’t constructed with security in mind at all,” the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s  Kathleen Fisher said during a recent 60 Minutes piece on drone security.   

Hackers are able to exploit these vulnerabilities through small software bugs allowing them to take full control of the vehicle because they are operating on unsecure networks that lack authentication and encryption, said Lee Pike, research lead for cyber-physical systems at Galois, a company that conducts software security  R&D in a phone interview with GCN.  While noting that it is feasible to use hacking as a defense, Pike stressed that hacking itself is a nuanced skill. Yet once a particular software flaw is discovered, “it is systemic in every system that has that software,” he explained.  This means that similar systems will be easy to exploit. Such attacks would become more difficult if drones have encryption or authentication add-on software to protect them.

And hacking is not without problems of its own. “The one reaction I have is one about safety,” Pike said. “You want to make sure that you aren’t causing more problems when you hack into a vehicle.  For example, causing the quadcopter to crash and a battery ... to explode could cause more harm than good,” he warned.    

For the Defense Department, small hobbyist drones that are undetectable by radar have potential to be used by the nation’s adversaries. Countering, thwarting and defending against small UAVs was a key focus at the Black Dart 2015 event, an annual exercise that took place between July 26 and August 7 and focused on live-fly, live-fire joint counter-UAS technology development and demonstration. 

“If there is anything that the terrorists have shown, it’s that they’ll be innovative and use anything that they can at their disposal to do what they're trying to do,” Black Dart project officer Air Force Maj. Scott Gregg told reporters.  “What we're trying to do at Black Dart is make sure that we are staying ahead of the game and that we have a good understanding of their capabilities before those capabilities outpace ours.”

Thales SA, a French defense-electronics manufacturer, has tested a system that uses radar to detect a drone, a camera to identify it and jamming tools to override the system and take control of the device’s path, the Wall Street Journal reported.  A prototype is expected next year, and will offer a vehicle-mounted portable solution.     

The Army, meanwhile, has developed a direct and decisive way to deal with unwanted drones.  Its C-RAM system has been tested to detect and intercept incoming drones then shoot them out of the sky.  The system was originally designed to counter rockets, artillery and mortars – hence its acronym, but it was adapted to counter small UAVs. C-RAM uses a 50mm cannon that can launch command-guided interceptors, a precision tracking radar interferometer as a sensor, a fire control computer and a radio frequency transmitter and receiver for launching munitions, the Army said.  That's probably overkill for hobbyist drones that stray off course, but the Army is concerned about defending against UAVs that have been armed and turned into flying improvised explosive devices.

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Reader Comments

Tue, Sep 8, 2015 andrew osterman

The challenges of detection and identification of small drones and drone swarms are well understood. The critical focus is development of appropriate technologies and components that will achive critical launch-to-kill balance. DoD/IC leaders are funding $100m systems to defeat $1,000 drones. We all need to learn from the IED dense experience the launch-to-learn cycle time and launch-to-kill cost.

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