What is needed, many reckon, are drone countermeasures.

These already exist for military drones—including shooting them down with lasers. But that is a dangerous way to deal with small consumer drones flying in public areas.

So, other answers are being sought in a challenge organised by MITRE, an American non-profit organisation that runs R&D centres funded by the federal government. It has drawn up a list of ten contenders to take part in a trial in August of “non-kinetic” systems capable of detecting and intercepting small drones weighing less than 5lbs (2.3kg). These systems must be good value and capable of wide deployment. The challenge is offering $100,000 of prizes and a chance to catch the eye of federal agencies.

The hurdles posed by the challenge are not what you might expect. “The technology aspects are sometimes the easy part,” says Duane Blackburn, a policy analyst at MITRE. Various rules and regulations mean that interfering with a drone could be a legal nightmare. For example, detecting a small hovering quadcopter drone at any reasonable distance requires a relatively powerful radar. Yet such transmitters are strictly controlled in America under Federal Communication Commission (FCC) regulations, making such equipment difficult and expensive
to acquire.

…Intercepting signals used by a drone might be considered an illegal “wiretap”, according to FCC regulations. Jamming signals is also against the law. Alex Heshmaty of Legal Words, a British legal-services company, says that interfering with the software of a third-party drone without permission might breach anti-hacking laws.

Even if these rules can be circumvented, the Federal Aviation Administration makes it illegal to interfere with an aircraft in flight—and drones are considered to be aircraft. Similar rules exist in many other countries, including Britain. Andrew Charlton, a drone expert and head of a Swiss aviation consultancy, reckons that workable countermeasures against small drones will emerge, but in order to deploy them widely countries will have to review rules and regulations drawn up in an era of manned flight.

A pretty fascinating conundrum to see old laws being applied to recently unimaginable problems. The Achilles heel and the basis for the solve seems to be ongoing transmission between operator and UAV. One has to wonder why a dedicated, well financed, technically savvy evil-doer might not just do the same thing the world’s air forces do – fire and forget.



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