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Anti-drone firms work to counter devices in tiny battle for the skies

Bloomberg

The drone intruder was roaming around the Rose Bowl as 94,000 fans cheered, oblivious to the threat. But scientists testing a new security device at the game detected its radio signals and seized control.

This was only a simulation, but if the unmanned drone had been a security risk they could have forced it down — even though the airwaves were choked by thousands of smartphones and Wi-Fi hot spots.

“It’s like being at a rock concert and trying to listen to someone at the other end of the stadium,” said Randy Villahermosa, principal director of the research and program development office of Aerospace Corp., which made the detection device. “It certainly did look feasible to us.”

In the past year, drones have flown onto the White House lawn, impeded more than a dozen flights battling California wildfires and been spotted hundreds of times by pilots of traditional aircraft, including airliners holding more than 100 people. That has left law enforcement agencies, prisons and private companies desperate for some way to protect against the new airborne threat.

In the simulated drone attack on Jan. 1 in Pasadena, California, during one of college football’s premier contests, the aircraft was carted around the stadium on a golf cart to avoid violating U.S. regulations barring drone flights near sporting events. But it is part of a tidal wave of efforts to counter the growing threat from the sale of millions of remote-controlled flying devices around the world.

“It is one of the top, if not the top, safety issues facing airports around the country,” said Christopher Oswald, vice president for safety and regulatory affairs at the Airports Council International-North America trade group.

Scores of companies, from a division of aircraft manufacturing giant Airbus Group SE to tiny startups, are jumping into the anti-drone market. The products range from military-grade radars and lasers, to a company training eagles to snatch small drones out of the sky for Dutch police.

Some companies have developed nets that one drone can drape over another to take them down.

“It is a hugely growing space and the traditional defense contractors will make some money selling these,” said Jim Williams, a former chief of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s drone division.

“There definitely is potential,” Phil Finnegan, director of corporate analysis at the aerospace researcher Teal Group Corp., said about the burgeoning drone-detection market.

Before these companies can take off, however, they must first maneuver through a thicket of legal, ethical and technical questions, according to Williams, Finnegan and Oswald.

Battelle, the world’s largest nonprofit research organization, learned that the hard way. Last year, it introduced its DroneDefender, a gun-like device resembling a prop from a “Flash Gordon” movie that blasts a radio beam at an unmanned device to jam its radio control signals. But it was forced to withdraw the product because using it violates U.S. Federal Communications Commission regulations.

“We have had to go quiet on it while the FCC figures out how it’s going to regulate this sort of thing,” Katy Delaney, a spokeswoman for Battelle, said.

The FCC, which governs America’s airwaves, prohibits the use of devices that interfere with radio transmissions, including those that control drones. It is also against the law to sell such devices to unauthorized consumers in the U.S., agency spokesman Neil Grace said.

U.S. criminal law separately prohibits use of any “destructive device” to cripple an aircraft. While airport operators are anxious for tools to monitor drones that threaten aircraft, they are wary of the potential legal issues, Oswald said.

“There are some big open questions and gray lines,” he said.

After drone-related safety incidents and sightings rose from only a handful to more than 100 per month last year, the FAA announced it was working with CACI International Inc. to test the company’s drone monitor system, known as SkyTracker. It is based on technology that the CACI, which provides computer services to intelligence and defense agencies, has already developed, Mike Kushin, an executive vice president, said.

CACI’s system can not only monitor drones near sensitive sites, such as the U.S. Capitol, it can also home in on the person flying the device by monitoring radio signals, giving police the ability to locate the perpetrator. In some cases, it may even be possible to get identifying information such as a device’s serial number, Kushin said.

“You turn on the drone, you turn on the handset and there is a sync-up between them,” he said. “We usually detect that even before the drone takes off.”

The company believes it can defeat drone operators who encrypt radio signals and it works on small drone models made by all the main manufacturers, he said. Like the Aerospace device used at the Rose Bowl, CACI’s version can take over a drone’s controls. The company will only offer that portion of the product if a client is legally permitted to use it, Kushin said.

A task force of government agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, is participating in tests of the CACI equipment, according to Amanda DeGroff, an agency spokeswoman.

Airbus Defense & Space GmbH uses different technology to detect drones. Drawing from military technology, its radar can identify a small unmanned aircraft as far as 2.8 miles (4.5 km) away, according to Meinrad Edel, director of sales, protection and reconnaissance at the company’s Ulm, Germany, facility. Video cameras take over at closer range and can see a drone as small as the popular SZ DJI Technology Co. Ltd. Phantom from .9 miles (1.5 km), Edel said.

The company offers countermeasures that can divert or take down the drone, if it is legal to use such jamming technology, he said.

In the Rose Bowl test, the team from Aerospace, a nonprofit that does high-tech research for the government, was able to tease out the drone’s signals from airwaves around the stadium that were clogged by tens of thousands of smartphones, Wi-Fi networks and radio transmitters.

In a follow up last month, Aerospace’s engineers demonstrated it was possible to take over control of one drone without interfering with the radio signals of another nearby unmanned aircraft, Villahermosa said.

While the company won’t be selling anti-drone products, it is working with law enforcement agencies to find out whether the technology would work in real-world situations, he said.

Aerospace’s scientists have looked at various techniques for detecting drones and none of them are perfect, he said. Sensing radio signals will probably work for drone operators who accidentally fly into the wrong places, but may not be as effective against a sophisticated operator intentionally trying to evade detection. Protecting sites as sensitive as the White House may require multiple layers of technology, he said.

The problem is similar to creating anti-virus protections for a computer, he said. There will be an unending race between nefarious actors and those creating the defenses.

“There won’t be one magic solution or a Band-Aid that we can put on this to solve the drone-threat problem,” Villahermosa said. “It’s going to evolve over time.”