“I want to scream as loud as I can that Congress and the FAA need to act to stop the next generation threat,” Timothy Bean, CEO of Fortem Technologies, told me. “The threat is autonomous drones that anyone on the planet can get from Amazon or Best Buy.”
While local law enforcement are trusted to use deadly force, when it comes to tackling rogue drones, their hands are legally tied, says Bean. They can acquire the technology but do not have the legal power to use it.
Before the 9/11 attacks, everyone knew that hijacked airliners could be used as suicide weapons, but this was seen as a plot device in a 1994 Tom Clancy thriller rather than a real-world risk. The nearest previous approach was would-be presidential assassin Samuel Byck hijacking a plane on the ground in 1974, intending to crash it into the White House. His failure even to take off made such attacks look less plausible, and the measures to prevent such incidents were only put in place after 9/11.
“I was impressed by the response to 9/11 by aviation security. Everything changed in one or two weeks,” says Bean. “Unfortunately it seems it takes a ‘black swan event’ to cause us to act quickly.”
His fear is that the next event might be a drone attack causing mass casualties. As with 9/11 everyone is aware of the possibility but adequate protection is not yet in place. Consumer drones fitted with grenades or other weapons have already carried out many attacks in Iraq and elsewhere and large-scale attacks have been vividly depicted in in the movies and in the celebrated Slaughterbots video. Such an attack could be devastating at a stadium, festival or other large gathering.
Jammers are now deployed at big events like the Olympics to stop drones. These block the radio signal between drone and operator. However, Bean says jammers are no protection against newer autonomous drones which fly themselves after launch and do not require a radio link.
“Autonomous drones are becoming increasingly common,” says Bean. “It takes about three minutes to program one with a flight path from an iPad.”
The threat is no longer a drone operated by someone standing in the parking lot with a radio controller. Multiple drones can be left on a rooftop close to the target well in advance, and activated from anywhere in the world.
Bean says there are good solutions to this threat, but a lack of budget and proper rules of engagement on who is allowed to bring down a drone and under what circumstances prevent them being applied. Longstanding laws prevent interference with any aircraft in flight, which includes small drones. The 2018 Emerging Threats Act gives the Department of Justice and other agencies authority to “use reasonable force” against a drone but this does not help local police.
“State and local police lack the authority to take down a drone,” says Bean. “But some are following common law, using principles like the right of self-defense, the right to protect property and privacy, and trespassing laws. But what does ‘trespass’ mean when someone is flying a drone?”
Equally the FAA has been looking at counter-drone approaches for years but still does not have a timeline for completing its analysis and recommendations.
If jammers are not the answer, something more robust is needed. Missiles and guns may be acceptable in war zones, but create an unacceptable risk of casualties a civilian setting. There would also be security issues with supplying something like the Army’s C-RAM – a tremendously powerful multi-barreled 20mm cannon– to civil operators, especially when it might be triggered by a stray party balloon.
Military high-powered lasers potentially offer a safer and more precise means of stopping drones, but are expensive and may not bring a swarm down swam down quickly enough. High-powered microwaves can stop a whole swarm, but Bean notes that their effectiveness falls off rapidly with range.
Bean says his approach is a long-range, affordable solution with less potential for collateral damage: a ready-to-launch defensive drone force.
“We believe the world is moving towards Blue Force interceptor drones,” says Bean.
Fortem’s approach is starts with new radar coupled with software to detect and identify drones and other small objects that traditional systems miss. The TrueView radar is specifically designed for drone detection, unlike traditional radar which filters out slow-moving objects, and SkyDome Manager provides full control including defining any number of gepofenced danger zones.
Incoming threat drones are taken down by DroneHunter interceptors, speedy multicopters armed with netguns. An intruder can be netted and towed away safety, so that neither the drone nor any payload — which might be explosives, chemicals or other harmful material — falls to earth. It may sound like Spiderman, but it is a proven approach and safer than kinetic approaches like bullets or missiles.
The system can co-ordinate multiple DroneHunters against multiple threats, prioritizing those which present the greatest risk based on the defined threat zones. The system has already been successfully deployed by a number of agencies in the U.S. and around the world.
Isn’t there a risk that the bad guys will increase the number of attacking drones to overwhelm the system?
“There is always a balance of resources versus risk,” says Bean. “It is no different from deciding how many police officers you have for the Superbowl versus a high school band competition.”
And unlike other systems, the number of interceptors available can be scaled up easily. Bean says that for one recent event there were some 23 DroneHunters on the ground.
Bean says that counter-drone defenses should be as much a part of the normal security background as fences and metal detectors at public events.
While the threat is evolving fast, so are the defenses. A new video shows a DroneHunter taking down a fixed-wing drone. Bean says they have a number of future plans in the pipeline, which may include things like new electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapons on the DroneHunter to burn out electronics on multiple drones at once.
“We can fly an EMP into the swarm,” says Bean. “That means the range is much shorter [than for a ground-based weapon] and we can have a massive effect with that.”
But while many operators are starting to invest in counter-drone systems, there is no lead from Congress or the FAA, and the longer the delay, the greater the risk.
As a result of the changes to security on civilian aviation, no attack similar to the 9/11 hijackings has succeeded in the last 20 years. But the door to a drone attack is still open. And an incident last month, when a hobby drone was accidentally flown into a building in the World Tarde Center complex, is a chilling reminder of the need for better protection before the sort of black swan event that Bean fears..
“Congress must act and proactively give both local and state law enforcement the authority to stop rogue drones,” says Bean.