Eye on the skies

Eye on the skies

Timothy Compston navigates through the latest anti-drone solutions that have been developed to clip the wings of the soaring number of drones taking flight

Few would argue that, when deployed correctly, drones – or UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) – act as a powerful force multiplier for the military, government, police and those tasked with site security. However, at the same time, this positive message needs to be set against the context of growing concerns being voiced over drones that are flown recklessly, or more worryingly, with malicious intent by criminal and terrorist elements.

The security threat that commercially available systems – often purchased for a few hundred dollars online – present has been brought into sharp relief in recent times thanks to a series of well reported incidents. Most recently we have seen groups like ISIS employing drones not just for reconnaissance but to deliver explosives, in the form of grenades, most notably as the battle rages over Mosul in Iraq. Added to this, the misuse of drones has helped to fan the flames of crowd trouble at sporting events. A case in point was the Euro 2016 qualifier football match between Serbia and Albania when an Albanian flag was flown above the Serbian half of the pitch, resulting in a clash between players and fans. Drones are also being flown for industrial espionage and, significantly, by criminal gangs to smuggle drugs and smart phones into prisons.

In the field of aviation, safety remains a primary concern in any debate about how drones should be handled, and where they can and cannot go. Last year a Lufthansa pilot reported a near-miss with a drone over Los Angeles international airport and Dubai itself has experienced several close calls. Back in January 2015 a recreational drone caused Dubai airport to suspend its operations for almost an hour on safety and security grounds. Quantifying the challenge faced by aviators, figures just released by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the US signalled an increase in possible drone sightings with 1,274 such reports from February through September last year, compared with 874 for the same period in 2015.

So, what solutions can, potentially, be rolled out to address this drone dilemma? Tighter regulation, can go some of the way to mitigate the risks in the context of law abiding citizens. For its part the UAE’s General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) has developed a comprehensive framework through its ‘securing the skies’ initiative which seeks to balance the tremendous potential which drone technology offers – in terms of economic development – with a recognition of the real safety, security, and privacy issues that are out there.

Moving ahead, for private users there is now a requirement to register their drone with the GCAA before flying. Other stipulations range from: drones weighing less than 5kg now only being able to fly in an approved zone to being prohibited from carrying video or image capturing devices and, crucially, drones having to remain in their operator’s line of sight. Things are ramped-up still further, on the regulatory front, for commercial operators of drones as they must hold a GCAA Drone Registration Certificate and obtain operational approval for every flight that they wish to undertake.

Above and beyond legislative action, an increasing number of vendors are seeking to bring solutions to market to tackle the scenarios where rules and regulations are simply not a sufficient deterrent or drones are accidently flown into restricted areas. The economics of responding to small UAVs is also exercising minds. The firing of a multi-million-dollar Patriot missile by an unnamed country to down a small commercial drone was cited by a US general recently as not the most sensible, or proportionate, deployment of resources. More realistic routes to tackle drones, that are within the reach of governmental and private sector concerns, include: jamming, taking control of the UAVs remotely, or even firing nets from anti-drone guns at the offending drone. Perhaps one of the most surprising options being considered to take-out drones in flight comes in the shape of birds of prey, specifically American Sea Eagles, who the Dutch National Police are looking at and, by all accounts, are very adept at the task.

Tracking drones

On the technology front, the ground-breaking Drone Tracker – from vendor Dedrone – is one answer that is gaining traction when it comes to meeting the drone detection requirement. High profile deployments for this approach include: the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department during the final US Presidential Debate; at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and to help protect the privacy of the Royal Family of Qatar at their residence while attending the Rio Olympics last summer.

Essentially, Drone Tracker is a multi-sensor drone warning system which reflects the reality that the size, speed, and shape of drones makes identification extremely difficult for a single monitoring method. Drone Tracker utilises a system of interacting sensors to detect all types of drones based on multiple parameters – such as noise, shape, and movement patterns – with the processing done in the device itself or via cloud computing. The Drone Tracker’s built-in HD (High Definition) camera allows the saving of images and video so there is evidence of the intrusion.

Speaking to Jörg Lamprecht, co-founder and ceo at Dedrone, about the threat dynamics at play here, he says that at the start with Drone Tracker the demand was around sites with obvious physical security needs like stadiums or prisons: “That brought a lot of business enquiries, whereas in the recent two quarters it has been more data- centres, headquarters, and design centres, once the news came out about the threat from ‘flying hacker laptops’.” Lamprecht characterises these as basically drones equipped with networking gear that, when flown close enough, can be used to hack into corporate networks and capture data: “I think that the underlying thing we are seeing is the merger of physical and cyber security.”

Lamprecht reckons that the capabilities of drones are evolving very fast and so too is the threat: “They are very good carriers for all kinds of devices, such as those used for snooping. Anything up to maybe 40 pounds [18 kg] can be mounted on consumer off-the-shelf drones and it is very easy to fly, and operate them, and to cause damage from that.” Aside from the rise of cybersecurity vulnerabilities here, a second major danger that Lamprecht flags-up – in common with other security experts – is the physical one posed by drones with explosives already having been dropped onto military forward operating bases in Iraq and Afghanistan.

RF Detection

The spectrum of challenges posed by drones was one of the main talking points at the recent Intersec 2017 event in Dubai, where TeleRadio from Singapore was showcasing its SkyDroner offering. SkyDroner is promoted as a complete anti-drone surveillance system which is designed to not only detect but also to distract, and disable unknown drones should they attempt to fly into a protected area like an airport or other critical infrastructure site. Jason Quek, regional sales director, at TeleRadio explains that the system consists of multiple sensors to monitor a range of radio signals and to identify the specific characteristics of a drone’s signature: “SkyDroner uses RF [Radio Frequency] detection to detect any RF drone signature and the system will automatically alert an operator. The system is also capable of defining the type and model of the drone and to issue commands to send the drone back to the operator, freeze the video transmission, or take over control and bring the drone to a designated area,” says Quek.

Also in attendance at Intersec was Drone Defence, the brainchild of former British Army officer, Richard Gill. “I recognised that drones could be a potential issue, about two-and-a-half years ago, when people were talking about privacy concerns. We were seeing drugs being smuggled into prisons and the technology has just proliferated since then,” says Gill.

He warns that criminals and terrorists are innovators just like everybody else and points out that they are seeking to employ this technology to further their own agendas: “You have seen what is happening in Syria and Iraq where drones are being weaponised. I saw a video recently of an ISIS ‘drone school’ where people were in a classroom with a drone in front of them learning to use it as a weapon.”

Touching on the main drone-related security requirements coming out of the Middle East, Gill says that, firstly, it is about protecting the privacy of the royal families and palaces from drones flying over their infrastructure. Added to this, Gill confirms that the protection of airports remains high on the agenda: “Dubai [Airport]has had a well- publicised problem with drones.” In addition, Gill says that members of the military he spoke to were concerned about how they could protect against the proliferation of drone technology from Yemen into places like Oman and the UAE.

So how does Drone Defence deal with drones that venture into areas where they shouldn’t? Gill says that the company is a strong advocate of attacking the electronics:

“At Drone Defence the principle that we apply is to make the drone do something else other than what the operator wants it to do. If the operator is going to drop a bomb you want to take control of the drone.” To achieve this, Gill explains that Drone Defence employs directional jamming: “This allows us to interdict the control frequency and navigation frequency to stop the operator steering it onto the target. I think that is the most logical solution.” Should a drone still get through then Gill says a last line of defence is the Net Gun X1 which, as the name suggests, is a CO2 powered net firing device: “This is a short- range option.”

Meanwhile, British manufacturer Kelvin Hughes has turned to radar as the basis of its SMS-D, an integrated, medium-range, radar-based surveillance system designed for the detection and tracking of small aerial targets. In operation, the SMS-D – which can be fixed to a permanent structure or vehicle mounted – is based on the company’s solid-state SharpEye X-Band solid-state radar transceiver technology and can detect drones up to 1.5 kilometres away.

Jonathan Field, security systems and sensors director for Kelvin Hughes, believes that the SMS-D represents a sophisticated yet cost- effective response to the increasing threat of drone incursion: “The first of its kind, the system is a fully integrated package of radar and electro-optic sensors and software.”

With the number of drones taking to the skies showing no sign of slowing down anytime soon it is perhaps not too surprising, given the associated security issues, that the market for anti-drone solutions is very much on the up. It will certainly be interesting to see the trajectory that the competing approaches, spotlighted here, take in the months and years ahead.