As innovation goes, the idea of a trained bird of prey taking out a menacing quadcopter is hard to beat, as a Dutch law enforcement video recently showed. Peruse YouTube; there are hours of footage of birds of prey doing what may be the most elegant solution yet to what is becoming a vexing problem. Besides, what could be more American than a bald eagle taking out a wayward drone at a Super Bowl? Apart from Lady Gaga’s outfit, of course.
The risk is certainly there. The FAA said February 3 that Super Bowl 50 south of San Francisco would be a “No Drone Zone,” meaning no drones can be flown “within a 32-mile radius of the stadium.” Fortunately a mishap was avoided, but past months have seen plenty of drones in the wrong place at the wrong time, from crashing on the White House lawn to just recently striking the Empire State Building.
Even when the drones themselves are functioning perfectly fine, their operators have interrupted firefighting efforts and caused near misses at airports worldwide. While kids might be asking for quadcopters as holiday presents, their parents may wish for technology that can knock them out of the sky.
As the buzz generated by bot-busting birds shows, the line between opportunity and risk, as well as nuisance and threat, for drones is extremely thin right now. Drones have the potential to bring significant economic benefits and redefine industries, including media, agriculture and energy. Along with those benefits, there are undeniable — but not insurmountable — problems.
Remember that a threat to security is just one kind of problem. As technology advances, maintaining privacy or protecting media broadcast rights and corporate intellectual property represent a whole new quandary.
It’s time to address these dynamics with counter-drone technologies.
The U.S. defense community has only just begun to tackle this challenge with the same intensity as big-dollar threats like ballistic missiles or stealth fighters. Boeing has developed a counter-drone laser weapon, while Finmeccanica has put forward the aptly named Falcon Shield. The Marine Corps recently demonstrated that a really good sniper can blast a drone with a rifle. The military might get away with that approach, but that’s not going to go over well at sporting events or even within city limits.
Countering drones is a small-scale but high-impact problem posed by a disruptive civilian technology.
That means there’s a market opportunity at hand to do some good and develop potentially game-changing technologies.
Given what’s at stake, inventors — and investors — should focus on developing the following four technologies now, when they are needed most and there are no clear market leaders:
- Detect: Simply put, drone detection, aside from the naked eye, is hard. Many radar systems — often used to find airborne threats — will have a difficult time picking up small, low-flying drones. Even if some radar systems can do the job, they will be far too expensive or large for most situations. As such, portable, inexpensive detection systems that can identify incoming drones (perhaps by heat signature, acoustics or RF signal) offer a significant opportunity to change the way we play defense regarding drones.
- Jam or commandeer: Electronic attacks against potential threats are nothing new in the military world. But what would be new is creating a control-signal jamming device that is portable and affordable. This jammer could then disable a threatening drone and essentially sever the link between it and the operator. Similarly, commandeering a drone could be achieved by hacking into the operating system to wrest control from the user.
- Capture: Imagine a team (or even a swarm) of drones working in tandem to capture a rogue drone using a net or some other restraint. The drones could then safely transport the offending system to another location, where it could be examined or destroyed. Given the degree of coordination required, greater autonomy for drones will likely be needed to pull off this capability.
- Block: The concept of geofencing — programming drones to avoid electronic “walls” — has been around for a while. In fact, people can enter into a “do not fly” list the address of their own home or business. DJI, the world’s largest provider of commercial drones, has chosen to program its systems to avoid certain areas. With potential threats only increasing, this should be a mandatory feature for all drones, and should include automatic downloads of updates. This is not a hard technology problem to solve, but both consumers and providers need to be committed to it.
Now is the time to take the lead on developing these technologies. Waiting around for official guidance from the Federal Aviation Administration is a mistake. Federal regulations continue to lag the proliferation and advancement of quadcopters and other easy-to-fly civilian drones. The laws will eventually catch up, but for a business to lead the pack on counter-drone technologies, they must start the development process now rather than let someone else define the solution.
Countering drones is a small-scale but high-impact problem posed by a disruptive civilian technology — something perhaps best both addressed inside and outside the Beltway. Just as the aerospace sector’s roots are in California, the unmanned age will continue to leverage technologies borne of Silicon Valley and its environs. Amazon, Google and other tech giants are intently exploring aerial drones, raising the level of potential competition in one of the most dynamic and disruptive corners of the aerospace industry.
Whether this expected proliferation of drones is a commercial, economic and technological success or not will depend on new counter-drone technologies that introduce levels of safety and confidence not seen today. The best view of effective counter-drone advances will not be from Washington, but from stadium seats where fans are simply focused on enjoying the game — not the skies overhead.