Start-ups take aim at growing number of errant drones
Countering unmanned vehicles used to spy or smuggle drugs and bombs is big business
A Skydroner 500 anti-drone system during a demonstration in Singapore. Photograph: Edgar Su/Reuters
The boom in consumer drone sales has spawned a counter-industry of start-ups aiming to stop drones flying where they shouldn’t, by disabling them or knocking them out of the sky.
Dozens of start-up firms are developing techniques – from deploying birds of prey to firing gas through a bazooka – to take on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that are being used to smuggle drugs, drop bombs, spy on enemy lines or buzz public spaces.
The arms race is fed in part by the slow pace of government regulation for drones. In Australia, for example, different agencies regulate drones and counter-drone technologies.
“There are potential privacy issues in operating remotely piloted aircraft, but the Civil Aviation Safety Authority’s role is restricted to safety. Privacy is not in our remit,” the Australian safety authority says.
“There’s a bit of a fear factor here,” says Kyle Landry, an analyst at the US-based Lux Research. “The high volume of drones, plus regulations that can’t quite keep pace, equals a need for personal counter-drone technology.”
The consumer drone market is expected to be worth $5 billion (€4.8 billion) by 2021, according to market researcher Tractica. By then, the average drone in the US will cost more than $500 and pack a range of features from high-definition cameras to built-in GPS, predicts NPD Group, a consultancy.
Australian authorities relaxed drone regulations in September, allowing anyone to fly drones weighing up to 2kg without training, insurance, registration or certification. Elsewhere, millions of consumers can fly high-end devices, and so can drug traffickers, criminal gangs and insurgents.
Drones have been used to smuggle mobile phones, drugs and weapons into prisons, in one case triggering a riot. One US prison governor has converted a bookshelf into an impromptu display of drones his officers have confiscated.
Armed groups in Iraq, Ukraine, Syria and Turkey are increasingly using off-the-shelf drones for reconnaissance or as improvised explosive devices, says Nic Jenzen-Jones, director of Armament Research Services, a UK-based consultancy on weapons. A boobytrapped drone, launched by Islamic State militants, killed two Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and wounded two French soldiers in October near Mosul. The use of drones by such groups is likely to spread, says Jenzen-Jones.
“There’s an understanding that the threat can migrate beyond existing conflict zones,” he says.
This is feeding demand for increasingly advanced technology to bring down or disable unwanted drones. At one end of the scale, the Dutch national police recently bought several birds of prey from a start-up called Guard From Above to pluck unwanted drones from the sky, says its chief executive and founder, Sjoerd Hoogendoorn.
Other approaches focus on netting drones, either through bigger drones or by guns firing a net and a parachute using compressed gas.
Some, such as German company Dedrone, take a less intrusive approach by using a combination of sensors – camera, acoustic, wifi signal detectors and radio frequency (RF) scanners – to monitor drones passively within designated areas.
Newer start-ups, however, are focusing on cracking the radio wireless protocols used to control a drone’s direction and payload, then on taking it over and blocking its video transmission.
DroneVision of Taiwan, meanwhile, says its device is the first to anticipate the frequency hopping many drones use. Founder Kason Shih says his anti-drone gun – resembling a rifle with two oversized barrels, coupled with a backpack – blocks the drone’s GPS signals and video transmission, forcing it back to where it took off, using the drone’s own failsafe features.
Clients range from intelligence agencies to hotels, the start-up companies say. DroneVision, for example, helped local police down 40 drones flying around Taipei 101, one of the world’s tallest buildings and a magnet for drone users, in a single day.
Shots of celebrity guests
In the Middle East, upmarket hotels are talking to at least two companies about blocking drones from taking shots of their celebrity guests lounging poolside or even in the privacy of their bathrooms.
Although the military may have the capability to bring down drones, Jenzen-Jones says demand is shifting to nimbler, more agile devices.
“The key is looking for systems that are scalable, lightweight and easily deployable,” he says.
DroneShield, an Australian-listed company, says it has sold its drone detection equipment to an Asian national security agency it declines to identify, and to the Turkish prime minister’s office.
The problem, such companies say, is that regulations on the use of drones – and on countering them – are still in their infancy. In countries such as the US and Australia, for example, drones are considered private property, and they can only be jammed by government agencies.
“Mitigation capabilities,” says Jonathan Hunter, chief executive of Department 13, “are therefore limited.”
Oleg Vornik, chief financial officer of DroneShield, however, says: “This is expected to change shortly as governments start to recognise that critical infrastructure facilities such as airports need to be able to defend themselves against drones.”
In the US, the Federal Aviation Administration is testing various counter-drone technologies at several airports. Interest in this area will only grow.
London will next year host the world’s first two conferences on counter-drone technologies, says Jenzen-Jones. But there will also likely be consolidation.
DroneShield’s Vornik says the company has counted 100 counter-drone start-ups and is talking to more than a dozen of them as potential acquisition targets.
It’s too early, Vornik says, to see evidence of moves to get around anti-drone technology. But Amazon.com last month tested deliveries in the UK via drones, and published a patent describing how it might defend drones from threats, ranging from a bow and arrow to signal jammers.