When I’m not obsessing about aviation, I write speculative fiction, including science fiction featuring near-future technology. So you can imagine I was pretty excited when I saw a headline last week that the Oceanside Police Department in California has recently acquired a Drone Killer. I had visions of The Terminator but it turns out that although these Drone Killers look like a gun, they don’t do any actual damage to the drones.
Technically, they are referred to as Unmanned Aircraft Systems. The drone killer is officially Counter-UAS technology, a serious matter in both civilian and military terms. One US Army official complained that the US has no control of the airspace below 3,500 feet above Syria and Iraq because there are so many drones operating in the area. There’s a number of already common criminal uses, including, drones smuggling contraband into prisons and drugs across borders. And, as we know, near misses between drones and commercial aircraft have highlighted a real danger in busy airports around the world.
The big problem we have is that modern air defence systems are generally ineffective against unmanned aircraft systems. Anti-aircraft weapons don’t register the small, low-flying drones and, even if they did, the cost of an anti-aircraft missile greatly exceeds the cost of a commercially available drone. Drones aren’t required to carry transponders, so they are invisible to air traffic control systems using secondary radar. The first report we often have of a drone operating around an airport is the report from the flight crew who have just experienced a near-miss.
So it’s no surprise that a lot of research and money is being spent on counter-UAS technology. There are two separate functions that are required to combat unauthorised drones. The first is to detect and track the drone and the second is interdiction: intercepting the drone and disrupting or destroying it.
Detection and tracking can be done by primary radar, using algorithms to distinguish between drones and birds or bats. More common, especially for civilian use, is to simply scan the popular frequencies used for drone operation. Military operations also use electro-optical (visual recognition), infrared (detecting the heat signature) and acoustic (tracking the unique sounds produced by drones) or some combination of the three.
Interdiction isn’t as simple as attacking the drone. Although the thought of shooting a malicious drone out of the sky may bring some satisfaction, realistically a fast-moving drone crashing towards the ground brings its own hazards, especially over crowds. Methods of interdiction in use today can be as simple as nets to entangle the drone or as complicated as hijacking the drone’s communications link by spoofing the protocol. One popular system is to jam the radio frequency link between the drone and its operator. But by far the coolest looking interdiction technique are trained eagles.
This Dutch project was cancelled a few months ago, as the eagles were more difficult to control than anticipated, although there is still a programme in place in Switzerland. Fortem Technologies has a similar solution based on a drone which hunts other drones: it patrols a set airspace and captures any drone that enter its territory, dragging it away to a safe area where it can be let go or discarded. Presumably, these are easier to control than the raptors, who are probably miffed that there isn’t even a morsel of flesh on the prey they have just captured.
The challenge is to find cost-effective measures that can deal with a wide range of different drones to cover a large area with as few false reports as possible. In addition, many areas need to distinguish between legitimate drone use and rogue drones operating unauthorised.
Many airports already use ground-based counter-UAS technology, sometimes referred to as electronic fences, which are designed to protect areas and facilities. Denver Airport, for example, has recently installed an AirFence which alerts Air Traffic Control of drones within a six-mile radius If a drone continues into protected airspace, the AirFence attempts to shut down its radio frequency. But this technology is large and stationary – it can’t be moved quickly and it may have blind spots. It isn’t much use for protecting a moving target, like a convoy, or for temporary hotspots where a drone can cause havoc such as public events.
Which brings us to the IXI DroneKiller: a hand-held counter-UAS system meant for manual use.
It looks like a kid’s futuristic gun, sort of big and plasticy. The manufacturer, a technology company called IXI Technology, describes it as rugged and security personnel-proof with easy-to-use controls. It’s 61 cm (24 inches) long and weighs 3.5 kilos (7½ pounds) – less than an adult cat or one and a half times the weight of a Chihuahua. OK, that might not be on the official specifications but it makes it clear: the Drone Killer is easily carried around on your person. The unit is so simple, you can train someone to use it in less than a minute.
But that’s where the similarities to a children’s toy stops.
You point it like a rifle and fire. The Drone Killer generates radio-frequency output in large amounts to disrupt the command and control link between the UAS and the operator. What happens next depends on how the system is programmed to function once it has lost its connections.
Many drones hover in place and then descend slowly to land. Others return ‘home’ – coordinates set by the operator or the location where the UAS was launched from. If the drone lands on the spot, you can simply pick up the drone and disable it. For drones that return to their launch point, it is often possible to track down the rogue operators, who with any luck are still staring at their controls wondering why the drones have stopped doing as they are told. Some drones can be automated to follow a set course, for example for filming, and thus don’t require a connection to the operator. In this case, the Drone Killer can interfere with the drones satellite link for GPS, which again will cause most drones to hover in place or land.
The Drone Killer fires in a 30° cone and it takes less than three seconds to disable most UAVs within its range of half a mile, or almost 2,500 feet. It can
shoot down disrupt UAVs for up to four hours. You can also set the Drone Killer to sensor mode, changing the gun into a radio frequency scanner which will alert you of drone operation radio frequencies over a two mile radius for up to eight hours. Because it is powered with rechargeable Li-ion batteries, the unit is easily rechargeable using your car’s 12-volt power point.
It’s easy to see why the police might be interested in such a unit, allowing for a direct response against an authorised drone operating in their area.
The police use drones themselves as well, of course, mainly for surveillance ranging from criminal investigations to search and rescue missions. A drone can cover a wide area quickly. Some examples of drones supporting police work include keeping up with a robber fleeing from the scene as well as track down a missing Alzheimer’s patient who couldn’t find the way back home. But with consumer drone ownership skyrocketing (as of January 2018, over one million drone users were registered with the Federal Aviation Administration), it’s no surprise that police also want a way to fight back when disruptive drones are flying over their heads just out of reach. In Oceanside, they are particularly hoping to avoid last year’s fiasco during a major fire of almost 5,000 acres, where they had to cease all aerial fire fighting operations for an hour in order to avoid collision with a drone operating in the area to film the damage.
Because the gun only has a range of about 2,500 feet, it wouldn’t help much for airport near-misses unless we outfitted the flight crew with Drone Killers that could be fired out the windows. As they are currently only certified for use in the US and even then only for Military and Government Agency personnel and, more importantly, cost $30,000 each, though, it seems unlikely that this will happen.
I know a few pilots who sure would like the chance, though! If you are one of them, you can find out more about the Drone Killer on the IXI website.
PS: Happy to talk about Southwest Airlines flight 1380 in the comments but right now the media cycle is so full of it, I decided to leave a post on the subject for a few weeks when we have more solid information and a basis for constructive analysis.
Maybe I’d prefer to concentrate on de-constructive.
Drones, as I think I predicted, are becoming a pest. They have the potential to clog up the lower airspace, are, not rarely, operated by totally unqualified but unscrupulous people and can intrude on our privacy. Massively. People no longer can sunbathe nude in their own backyard – secluded or not – without risking finding their picture on social media. We are already monitored by “Farcebook” or other social media on a constant basis, our habits are being scrutinised. Think of the innocent (??) key fob that logs your purchases in the supermarket and will give you a discount or reward after so many points are accumulated. It also builds a picture of your shopping habits. Your mobile phone keeps constant watch over your movements, Google map has already built a database of your local area, your fridge, your TV and computer may well be spying on you.
When used for the good, well maybe with reservations.
But the totally out-of-control spread of drones is a development that makes Orwell’s ‘1984’ small fry in comparison.
WHERE CAN I BUY ONE OF THESE DRONE KILLERS?
I don’t really think that drones will enhance our lives.
Let’s talk about the Northwest incident:
What a horrible death, being half sucked out of the cabin window. My heart goes out to the poor woman and her family.
As so often, the sensation press takes over with stories about “hero pilots” who just did what years of training had taught them to do.
But it would not be wrong to say that the crew in this case did it superbly.
Neither an engine failure at altitude, nor a rapid decompression are particularly difficult for a well-trained crew to handle.
But the sudden disintegration of an engine, causing debris to damage the fuselage to this extent can be a bit of a shock, to put it mildly.
The captain came across as superbly competent, she certainly does deserve recognition for that.
So sad that it had to result in a loss of life.
It’s more of a comm’s disruptor than a killer. After seeing the article title I thought they’d manufactured a powerful directional EMF weapon. I was surprised that it was so small, since I imagined that you’d need a large, multi-element antenna to get good directionality, along with a warning not to use it near sensitive electronics, pacemakers, etc.
And here you see the difference between the folks who build such a gadget, and the folks who sell it.
The size and shape seem to point to a ‘waveguide’ transmitter antenna, which is litterally a can that should be somewhere near 100mm/a litte shy of 4 inches in diameter. But it’s gag anyway. Up-to-date radio equipment keeps the link by hopping into any available channel of the 2.4Ghz band and long range radios operate in various channels some where around 900Mhz. So: Well along with the fact, that this thing is additionally a Wifi & Bluetooth device killer I don’t think a 2 band directional jammer will ever be legally certified.
It strikes me that a drone programmed to, when it loses connectivity, to return to its launch point can also be programmed to continue on to its destination point and land there.
Losing GPS might hurt, but I can’t imagine any decent drone not being able to have at least some inertial navigation. Granted their errors, a compass, altitude, and airspeed is really all they need. Furthermore, their GPS will recover as soon as the guy with the “gun” stops pulling the trigger.
So again, sophisticated smuggling drones have no problem with this thing, while the rest suffer the consequences. Low-hanging fruit (almost literally…)
Personally? I put my trust in a Mossberg. ;-) Jon
I agree – this device only works on certain frequencies and with certain aircraft; I saw one place that claimed it only worked on DJI aircraft.
As you mention, the cheap aircraft are programmed to return to their launch point if comms are disrupted; more expensive aircraft can go to a set location or perform other maneuvers when comms are disrupted, so devices like are of less use.
Furthermore, this device can only be used sparingly since the signal it broadcasts interferes with other signals – I’m sure it blocks WiFi, which the agencies using the device themselves have at any location or situation big enough to warrant a device like this. With the proliferation of wireless usage, anybody that wants to block frequencies or signals has to be very careful to avoid collateral damage.
P.S. I say aircraft because anybody truly in the industry uses UAV or UAS; using “Drone” is a sign of a non-professional or a wanna-be-professional.
Drones, when in the hands of properly trained and licenced operators, can be used for many very worthwhile purposes. The problem with these drones is that currently they are getting in the hands of people who abuse them. Gross violation of privacy, interference with (protected) wildlife, smuggling, obstruction of justice. I have no doubt that careless operators are becoming more and more a concern. Not to mention all sorts of uses that criminals, perhaps with a creative mind, can use them for. Attach video cameras and you have ideal vehicles for recording open air concerts and selling unauthorized copies. There are nearly limitless unlawful or unethical possibilities that have the potential to outweigh the advantages.
What about the drone killer? I am convinced that an even moderately talented engineer can produce one that can down a drone, as envisaged by Amazon, delivering parcels. Rich pickings and with very small risks.
But if legitimate parcels can be delivered by drone, so can poison or explosives. Terrorists’ mouths may already be watering!
Strangely, it seems easier to obtain one without any form of licence, vetting, knowledge or experience – I am thinking of skills that will ensure keeping within safe and responsible parameters – than for a retired ATPL to actually get an official drone operator’s permit or licence. The lack of legislation to deal with drones is probably the cause of their out-of-control proliferation.
But the sooner legislation is introduced, the better. There seems an utter lack of understanding by the politicians what drones can be (ab)used for!
In the United States there have been occasions where quad copters were used to smuggle items into prisons and across the border with Mexico.
I am a remote pilot in command of a sUAS. I have an FAA certificate and carry 1M in general liability insurance. I am over age 50. I use my UAS professionally for accident reconstruction purposes when people die or suffered permanent-life altering auto collision injuries. I prepare 3D orthomosaic diagrams, animations and simulations using a UAS and software. I am not a problem flyer. I spend far more time preparing for the flight than the actual flight itself. I’ve never crashed and I don’t take chances. None of that matters because people view me the same as a 16-year-old boy flying a toy. I’ll try to fight perception bias with words. If you are worried about privacy please note most drones don’t have zoom lenses. If it’s 150 feet in the air you are too small to be recognized. You cannot claim privacy while walking down a public street. You cannot claim privacy when you are in public. If you are in public view anyone can look at you and if you don’t like that you should adjust your expectations. You can do that by telling yourself “the drone is here and I am here but we aren’t here for the same reason, in fact, the drone operator doesn’t know me, doesn’t care about me and I’m interfering with his or her shot”. I also pleasure fly and people get in the way of the shot. You may have noticed by now most serious drone photographers do landscapes, structures, land formations and the like. The people are edited away. You can see them….people…on TV, or by looking in a mirror. They don’t make interesting subject matter for drones. Most people worried about being seen while nude sunbathing have nothing to worry about; you have an overinflated sense of self you’re feeding. That said, flying over someone’s backyard should only happen if it is related to the mission, like doing aerials for a real estate agent. Otherwise I don’t fly over houses. Lastly, if you fly non commercially (for fun) don’t fly around pedestrians. I don’t mean “flying directly over people”, I mean flying anywhere near them. If you are planning to buy a drone for fun please keep in mind flying them where you can see humans is probably airspace that requires ATC authorization. Flying within 5 miles of an airport is a no-no. Look up the rules before you buy. You’ll find out where you can’t fly and that’s most places urban.
I don’t agree, personally, with your views on privacy but I do understand that there are real problems in terms of public perception of UAS users and understanding what is and is not reasonable usage.
The British CAA is specifically looking for people like you to help inform policy and legislation. It could be worth looking into whether the FAA have any similar initiatives.
Given today’s disruption at Gatwick Airport in the UK, this article is interesting. I wonder what the UK Military actually do have to disrupt UAV’s.