Creative Commons attribution
Creative Commons attribution

“I can buy a $300 or $500 drone and use it to hop your network, because it can come with all of those kinds of radio sensors close to your computer.”

Gilad Beeri, a software engineer with experience in cybersecurity and radio communication is cofounder and chief technology officer of Palo Alto-based ApolloShield, one of a number of startups and defense companies selling ways to take down drones behaving badly.

“The drone never crashes, just goes back to the operator and lands safely near the original operator,” he says.

ApolloShield, which resembles a wireless router and costs about $30,000 a year, is designed to detect nearby drones up to two miles high—well above the FAA-established ceiling for drones of 400 feet—and record their unique identifying numbers. It also gives its users the option of spoofing the drone’s “go home” signal, ordering them to return to their operators and land.

The process involves buying commercially available drones and reverse engineering the ways they communicate, something that generally takes about two weeks per model, Beeri says. “We actually learn the language of the drone and the remote control, and we teach our system how to speak that language,”
he says.

As new drones come on the market, the company can push updates to its customers, who, he says, only include those in charge of protecting airports, stadiums, prisons, power plants, and other critical infrastructure.

Generally, federal law and FAA regulations make it illegal to damage or tamper with any aircraft, including drones, and Federal Communications Commission rules make it illegal to jam any kind of radio transmissions, according to Dallas attorney Jason Melvin, who’s been called the “Texas Drone Lawyer.” But, he says, courts have yet to specifically deal with the question of the legality of
anti-drone systems.

“None of these issues have been litigated, and there aren’t a lot of laws and regulations that address the situation yet,” says Melvin. Even in cases where, say, federal law enforcement agencies are granted permission to take down drones, there are still likely to be questions of liability if a drone is unintentionally damaged, or even crashes into someone, when it’s sent an overriding signal, he says. Moreover, a powerful signal from an anti-drone jammer could also disable other nearby communications technology, like cell phones and
navigation systems.

Research and development firm Battelle also offers an anti-drone device, a rifle-shaped anti-drone radio transmitter called the DroneDefender, but Federal Communications Commission regulations on radio transmissions mean the company can only test it under restricted circumstances and can’t sell it to civilians. Battelle researcher Dan Stamm says it’s sold about 100 of the devices to the Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security. In July, one was spotted on a military base in Iraq. 

The Battelle device effectively blocks the radio signals the operator is sending. It transmits a “proprietary waveform” that’s designed to interfere with any commercial drone it’s aimed at, without needing to understand the specifics of how the device communicates. 

Government and military agencies aren’t taking any risks. Last year, it was revealed the Secret Service was testing a drone shield around the White House, and the FAA and Department of Homeland Security began testing a drone detection system earlier this year intended to locate errant drones around airports and other secure locations and one that can both detect and block radio communications with misbehaving drones.

To stop drones from interfering with firefighting aircraft during wildfires, the Interior Department announced in July that it was testing a “geofencing” system to send software warnings to nearby drone pilots, as part of a collaboration with the drone industry. [This is an exaggeration as it depends entirely on a drone pilot logging on to AirMap.]

Meanwhile, NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon’s R&D arm, are developing and seeking proposals for building a system that could track all drones flying below a certain altitude across a city, perhaps using tracking systems mounted on additional drones.

Stamm, who developed the DroneDefender with Morrow, says that no anti-drone system will work every time. “There are certainly drones that are out there, that will be resistant to our effects, for sure, but we like to say that we’re effective against the vast majority of commercial [unmanned aircraft] that are out there.”

Anti-drone vendors will struggle to stay one step ahead of drone makers in the quest for vulnerabilities. “Like any kind of security company, it’s always a bit of an arms race,” says Grant Jordan, CEO at anti-drone tech startup SkySafe. SkySafe provides a subscription service including hardware and software to identify, land, and potentially even take control of unauthorized drones. The company is currently focused on the public safety market as it builds out new capabilities, and is not currently selling to individual end users, says Jordan.

“For some of these things, we’re just going to have to wait and see.”

We have reported most of these stories previously. The central issue in the US is that it is illegal to take over an aircraft or jam communications. Eventually, this will be settled in any number of courts.  Not hard to imagine a concept like “justifiable droneicide” entering the lexicon.
For more on the effort see the post on the recent MITRE Counter UAS Challenge which was conducted on behalf of the Federal government.



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