As drone services evolve to innovate delivery and surveillance, aviation officials must have the ability to capture an unauthorized or unsafe drone. Not only can drones be used for legitimate commercial or noncommercial services, they can be exploited by criminals. Here's a look at the development of anti-drone technologies that help authorities deal with drones used for criminal or dangerous activities.
Rise of Drone Risks
Unmanned aircraft systems (UASs) include drones which are used to monitor areas like farmland or large industrial facilities. Retailers are starting to experiment with delivering packages to customers with drones. Law enforcement can use drones to locate fugitives.
At the same time, unauthorized drones can interfere with federal aviation operations, requiring officials to use detection and response measures. Drones that pose a threat to security must be disabled and captured by authorities. The ability to jam communications is crucial to terminating suspicious or dangerous aircraft.
Incidents involving potential drone threats have already surfaced, such as when a drone crashed into the White House in 2015. Another incident occurred in January 2019 when Newark Liberty International Airport had to divert planes for over an hour following a suspicious drone sighting. These scenarios call for increased oversight of U.S. airspace. It's essential to prepare for increased drone monitoring because the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) expects recreational drones to outnumber commercial drones by almost a 2-1 margin by 2024.
Key risks that grow with the spread of drones involve criminals transporting illegal drugs or weapons in U.S. airspace. Even more dangerous is the threat of drones being used to launch a public attack, such as at a crowded sports stadium. Clearly, these threats call for surveillance that raise another hot issue, which is privacy. It's possible for counter-drone technologies to collect data on operators and people within their close proximity.
Watch the recording of our webinar “Connected Skies” to hear about drone laws, connected drones, drone delivery, and how drones are leveraging the power of mobile and satellite connectivity, and more.
Challenges Facing Anti-Drone Strategies
Federal laws are already in place to restrict or prohibit certain counter-drone activities in the United States. These laws include the Aircraft Sabotage Act and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Only four federal agencies including the Defense and Homeland Security departments are allowed to deploy counter-drone technologies in certain situations. No other agencies, including local law enforcement, are allowed to use counter-drone solutions at this time.
The FAA experiments with counter-drone technologies in a limited way to test methods for reducing drone risks. While the agency currently has long-range signal-jamming capabilities that work in rural areas, officials must be careful not to disrupt regular communications used by airports and other organizations. Another major challenge to overcome is that smaller drones are more difficult to detect and mitigate.
Counter-drone use also raises concerns about the protection of birds, which can trigger false detections. Electromagnetic interference such as power lines may also interfere with detection capabilities. Another risk of using counter-drone technologies is they can create safety hazards. Shooting down an unauthorized drone creates the potential for people on the ground getting injured by the falling object.
How Anti-Drone Technology Works
The two main types of counter-drone technologies are detection and mitigation. Detection equipment includes infrared devices as well as radar systems that pick up radio signals. Devices also exist that monitor acoustic sounds generated by drone motors. The current capabilities of anti-drone technologies include the following:
- Audio detection - Drones can be tracked due to the unique sound they generate. Devices exist that can accurately detect these specific frequencies of approaching drones from 500 feet. But when tested in typical noisy urban settings, the performance is not as precise.
- RF technology - Drones communicate via radio frequency (RF) technology based on RFID chips, which is also used by warehouses to track inventory. Transmission and receiving equipment must be tuned to the same frequency for communication to work.
- Jammers - These devices are used to saturate a targeted drone's radio frequencies with noise that drowns out communications between the UAS and its operator. Jammers typically operate at non-assigned public frequencies of either 2.4 Ghz or 5.8 Ghz. Using this part of the electromagnetic spectrum prevents jammers from interfering with legitimate communications used by the public. Jammers exist in the form of stationary or mounted devices as well as gun-like instruments that can control drones by pointing at them.
- Geofencing - This technology creates barriers surrounding an airspace, based on GPS network connections such as Wi-Fi. Some drones already have built-in geofencing to alert pilots when the drones enter restricted airspaces such as utilities or prisons.
- Video cameras - Video equipment can be used for detecting drones. Due to factors such as weather, however, video is not always the best way to monitor drones. But video cameras are still useful for documenting records of drone events.
- Thermal imaging - This solution using thermal imaging cameras also has limitations, but is useful when searching for drone operators in remote areas.
- Radar - Since drones are small flying objects, they are difficult to detect by radar, which is better for detecting large aircraft.
Mitigation technologies empower officials to repel or intercept unauthorized drones. Aviation authorities can use interference signals to jam drone communications between the aircraft and its operator. Jamming, which is the most commonly-used mitigation technology, can force the UAS to land or return to where it launched. Other mitigation solutions include using lasers or projectiles to shut down or destroy the aircraft.
Outlook for Anti-Drone Market
The anti-drone market is expected to be highly competitive and grow 25 percent (CAGR) over the next five years. Latin America is poised to have the highest growth over the period, while North America currently has the largest share of anti-drone sales. In 2021, the defense industry accounted for the biggest share of counter-drone profits, followed by airports. Combined, these two industries represent the majority on counter-drone usage.
Since over 2 million drones are expected to populate U.S. airspace by 2024, the federal government is ramping up anti-drone technologies in preparation. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security made an extensive investment in 2021 for its DroneSentry-X systems. Future anti-drone systems will use laser techology to terminate targets.
Drones will improve society in multiple ways with the ability to deliver goods and take aerial photos. But counter-drone systems are also needed to reduce the nefarious use of drone technology. Just as internet users must guard against hackers in cyberspace, drone users and regulators must be cautious of drones used for criminal activities in physical airspace.