The recent disruptions caused by drones entering the airspaces of Gatwick and Heathrow airports in the UK have thrown into question national readiness in dealing with threats from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
In some respects, the UK Civil Aviation Authority has already learnt from the Gatwick incident and has adopted initial response measures and the UK Government’s Defence and Security Accelerator (DASA) has just launched a new £2m competition to foster innovation in counter-UAV technology.
However, there is still currently a gaping hole in the security industry regarding how to identify and stop a drone. What types of threats are there from small drones and what measures can governments take for threat prevention and elimination?
Threats from small drones: what is realistic?
Let’s start with the elephant in the room. Possibly the most impactful threat – but also the least probable – is the use of small drones to commit terrorist attacks. While UAVs have been known to commit terrorist acts in Turkey and Syria, the chances of drone terrorism occurring in the UK are minimal.
Speaking at the recent Security and Counter Terror Expo (SCTX) 2019, Andrew McQuillan, director of Crowded Space Drones, which operates the counter-UAV systems for Gatwick airport, said: “I don’t want to push drones up there too high as a main threat. The counter terrorism police believe it is a relatively minor threat in terms of the grand scale of things. They think that vehicle attacks or suicide bombings are a much more likely methodology.”
More concerning is the use of small drones as a distraction, to cause panic in a large crowd, to overload electronic warfare capabilities, or for transporting contraband.
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Blighter Surveillance Systems business development manage Geoff Moore agrees, saying that the use of drones “as a means of delivering some sort of a physical, explosive, or biological attack” is not the only potential threat at which we should be looking.
“They could simply be used as yet another means of overloading control and command solutions and providing diversions that take away the resources,” Moore said during a counter-UAV panel discussion at SCTX 2019.
“Or desensitise the command and control solution to the event so that they open up or expose areas of weakness elsewhere that then can be attacked through more traditional means.”
These are the kind of threats that the DASA competition is trying to address, making use of autonomous mechanisms, networks of sensors, and comprehensive detection and elimination systems with both soft and hard kill measures.
Soft vs hard kill
There is somewhat of a divide in the industry today, with some companies focusing on stopping drones through radio-frequency (RF) jammers, spoofing and electronic interference, while others are developing counter-UAV systems that can autonomously capture or destroy a drone.
Jamming is the practice of using a transmission blocking signal to disrupt the pilot’s communications with the drone. A successful jam will cause the drone to fall to the ground. Spoofing allows a third party, such as the police, to take over a drone by impersonating its remote control system.
However, soft kill measures are only effective in the right circumstances. One emerging issue is the greater use of waypoints to fly drones that can be plotted using mapping software on a tablet or personal computer. Since there is no remote control, there is no RF signal to hear or jam.
Fortem Technologies CEO Tim Bean said in the panel discussion: “We believe that there is 30-40%, and it’s growing, of people that aren’t using joysticks anymore, they are using iPads and flying on waypoints. Those are not heard by the antenna anymore.
“We believe that having a radar system that can actively see [a drone], not relying on listening, is needed because that’s solving 90% of the criminal use.”
Fortem is the same company developing the autonomous Drone Hunter, itself a UAV with anti-drone hard kill capabilities. As soon as a UAV passes over the perimeter of an airspace, the Drone Hunter launches into the sky at around 70mph, locks onto the enemy drone and fires a net to trap and tow the drone away.
It is safer and more effective than a soldier or police officer manually attempting to shoot the drone down with a firearm. The Drone Hunter’s autonomy also gives it a massive edge. Bean noted how US Army drone specialists even tried catching a drone by manually driving the Drone Hunter and failed to catch one in 38 attempts.
However, even the Drone Hunter has its own issues to iron out, not least that it only has two shots, rendering it ineffective against multiple drones or a swarm.
Counter-UAV technology a ‘chocolate fireguard’
The level of innovation in the field of counter-UAV technology is certainly promising but, so far, nothing is sufficient as a complete package, and both governments and the private sector are looking at combination of technologies to create a secure airspace.
“What we’ve seen is companies coming in with drone detection products who are claiming that they can, for example, deal with the Gatwick and Heathrow incidents, and also detect any type of drone coming in,” McQuillan said.
“We know there is almost no product on the market that can categorically cover all types of drones out there. So that’s my concern, that there are still companies out there that are trying to sell you things that are essentially a ‘chocolate fireguard’.”
McQuillan noted that all major airports are viewing a combination of solutions, using different types of technology that can make the airspace as secure as possible, but there is as yet no guarantee that the system will identify and stop malicious drones.
He added: “Some [solutions] will tell you there is a drone nearby, some will triangulate it, and some will tell you exactly where it is. The key thing is to find a solution that fits with your crowded place.”