Whether you love drones or you hate them, you probably agree that they have the potential to change the world. From carrying vaccines for babies in the South Pacific to transporting blood products in Rwanda, drones have already improved health care access around the world. And that’s just in the humanitarian space – when you add mapping, crop monitoring, infrastructure inspection, and the possibility of transporting people and goods, you get a sense of the impact drones can have.
But like the internet without firewalls or email without spam filters, drone operations cannot reach their full potential without protections that deter malicious operators. People who depend on drones for business are the first to acknowledge that if drones are to change the world, we need to know how to manage them safely, and stop them if necessary.
Stopping malicious drones isn’t easy, but it can be done. First, reliable and robust detection is necessary, so that drones can be spotted in time to take some action. Fortunately, drones have common features that can be exploited by detection systems. They emit or reflect electromagnetic signals across the spectrum, from sound and radar waves to radio transmissions, visible light, and heat. All of these signals can be used to help discern drones in the area.
Once a potential drone is detected, it has to be identified and distinguished. A system that can’t tell a drone from a seagull, or an ordinary drone from a malicious one, is not operationally useful. According to Leo McCloskey from radar manufacturer Echodyne, the magic is in the radar signal processing software. Echodyne’s radar uses indicators within the signal, including object size, flight path, and the Doppler signature from the drone’s spinning blades, to distinguish drones from birds. Engineers at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University have turned to neural networks and machine learning to continually improve drone identification using the acoustic signature of different types of drones. Both of these solutions also represent a step change in costs from earlier counter drone systems.
Detection and identification are important, but to really be effective, a system also has to be able to take out a malicious drone. Drone mitigations can be kinetic, like nets or projectiles, or non-kinetic, like jamming or radio frequency signal substitution. Kinetic solutions are important, particularly in military settings, but in environments like airports, having drone pieces scattered about actually creates new problems. Jamming is effective, but impractical when it interferes with legitimate radio signals. Signal substitution however allows the operator to take control of the drone and maneuver it safely away. Systems that rely on signal substitution, like DroneFox, manufactured by WhiteFox, and Embry-Riddle’s system, must always be updated to make sure they are responsive to new cybersecurity hardening.
Despite the engineering challenges inherent in drone detection and mitigation, the biggest obstacle is not technical at all. It’s legal. Right now, public safety agencies face a confusing landscape concerning what they are permitted to do to identify and stop drones. “There is a perception that counter UAS is illegal,” says Luke Fox, founder and CEO of WhiteFox, “but really it’s like shooting a gun – it’s illegal for most people most of the time, but there are many times and places when it is permitted. With counter UAS, it’s hard to figure out what you can and can’t do.” The recent passage of the Emerging Threats Act expanded the authority for drone identification and disruption to include more federal agencies. In addition to the Departments of Defense and Energy, the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice now have limited authority to detect and mitigate drone threats, but state and local authorities are still hampered by laws originally designed to protect privacy and prevent wiretapping. In a report released yesterday, drone manufacturer DJI argued that local authorities “rarely have guidelines” on how to respond to drone threats, and “in some cases may arguably be prohibited by law from interfering with a drone in flight.” Local law enforcement agencies “need legal processes allowing them to act in the rare cases when an airborne drone appears to pose a clear threat.”
Drones have already saved hundreds of lives and transformed industries as diverse as film making and agriculture. But the continued growth of the drone industry depends on enabling reliable counter drone operations. Technically, counter drone solutions are within reach. This time, it’s legal solutions that are needed most.
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