Anti-Drone Technology: The Next Big Craze?

Drones.  Not more than a few years ago, they were the high-tech secrets of the military, occasionally photographed or caught on video and then reported across the internet as UFO sightings. Today, Walmart sells 19 different kinds on its website. According to the Consumer Electronics Association, sales approximated 700,000 in the U.S. in 2015, a 63% increase since the prior year, with more than one million daily drone flights expected by 2o25 [1].  Not including business, government, news or other professional users, the Federal Aviation Authority estimates more than 30,000 private unmanned aircraft in U.S. airspace by 2030 [2].

Not surprisingly, the increasing popularity amongst consumers is also causing increased concern, particularly for commercial aviators and government officials.  Pilots are now reporting drones in airspace reserved for aircraft several times a day, and drone crashes, misuses and misdeeds are making the news with increasing regularity.  A few notable examples include: in September 2015, a drone crashed into the stands at the Louis Armstrong stadium during a U.S. Open match [3]; another crashed on the White House Lawn in January 2015 [4]; in April 2015, a radioactive drone was discovered in Tokyo on the roof of the Japanese Prime Minister’s office [5]; during a Christian Democratic Party campaign in September 2014, a Parrot AR drone crashed dangerously close to German Chancellor Angela Merkel as part of a deliberate attack, while another drone nearly collided with an Airbus A320 during take off from Heathrow airport in July 2014 [6]. Perhaps the worst scenario to come would be a weaponized drone aimed at civilian targets or even a convoy of drones programmed to drop a collective payload of explosives or biological weapons on a targeted area.

Despite potential security and privacy risks arising from the growing numbers of users, last February, the Federal Aviation Administration relaxed rules to make it even easier to operate drones in the United States. This was a particular boon for law enforcement agencies desiring drone surveillance, for commercial firms ranging from drone-based delivery services to aerial photography and, in particular, for the sheer entertainment of numerous private individuals. Both privacy and security, however, could be compromised [7].

To compensate, on December 21, 2015, the FAA issued a regulation stating that all owners of small unmanned aircraft; i.e., those weighing between 0.55 pounds and 55 pounds (250 g – 25 kg) used for recreational purposes must register their drone and must be U.S. citizens or permanent legal residents.  Those who fail to register can face civil and criminal penalties [8].  For hobbyists, the regulations added:

  • model aircraft should be flown a sufficient distance from populated areas and full scale aircraft,
  • should be kept within visual line of sight of the operator,
  • should weigh under 55 lbs. unless certified by an aeromodeling community-based organization, and
  • cannot be used for business purposes [9].

Businesses, news agencies, law enforcement and other professional users of unmanned aircraft are advised to register separately, under different rules, and seek special airworthiness certificates.

All of this begs the question, “Is it legal to shoot down a drone in my backyard?”

In July 2015, William Merideth of Kentucky did just that.  He was arrested after blasting a drone out of the sky which, he argued, was hovering over his teenage daughter with a video camera while she was sunbathing.  In fact, more than a few drones have been shot down; others have been dispatched to drone heaven by firefighters with a hose after a drone was observed recording the house fire they were fighting.  In 2014, celebrating fans of the Stanley Cup-winning L.A. Kings knocked a hovering drone from the sky and then destroyed it with a skateboard [10].

During the summer of 2015, NASA hosted its first Unmanned Aerial Systems Traffic Management Convention.  In attendance were representatives from Amazon, a company which is intent on providing drone-based delivery service in the near future.  Since navigable airspace is currently defined as being above 500 feet, Gur Kimchi, Vice President of Amazon Prime Air, proposed dividing Class G airspace (i.e., the space below 500 feet) into three zones: zero to 200 feet above ground reserved for hobbyists, 200 to 400 feet a high-speed zone for commercial users, and keep the current buffer zone between 400 and 500 feet.  While the FAA claims that it will offer rules on the issue some time during 2016, the regulations will likely favor both hobbyists and commercial users, doing nothing to resolve the issue of anti-drone efforts and potential technology.  In fact, regarding privacy issues, the FAA specifies that this question is “beyond the scope of the rulemaking” [11].

Gregory McNeal issued an advisory paper through the Brookings Institution, proposing that property owners retain control of airspace up to 350 feet and, likewise, be able to do as they please with uninvited unmanned aircraft trespassing within the airspace over their property [12].  Unfortunately, Mr. McNeal may not be considering the fact that, if this were the case, then all drone activity would be confined into the mere 50 feet of remaining space beneath the start of the current 400-foot buffer zone, to include Amazon’s proposed “high-speed” commercial use. He may also not be considering the implications of drones falling out of the sky after the decommissioning efforts of property owners, with potential injury to nearby people, animals and property.

In the end, anti-drone technology will likely be taken out of the hands of the public and become the exclusive domain of specially trained and equipped law enforcement agents, governmental entities and commercial vendors. Already, anti-drone companies such as DroneShield, launched in 2013 from a successful Kickstarter campaign, Domestic Drone Countermeasures out of Oregon, and the French company, Orelia, are predicting big business to come.  Indeed, the technology they have amassed is impressive: networks to identify radio signals from drone operators, portable guns that fire nets to capture drones, and electric signals to scramble the drone’s operations.  And if professional weapons contractors such as SRC get involved, they could potentially offer versions of their existing military-grade anti-drone countermeasures for use by both individuals and business [13].  That would truly usher in a new era of the “eye in the sky.”

 

References:

[1] D. Kerley, “Drone Popularity Draws Concern From Pilots, Federal Officials,” ABCNews.com, Oct. 1, 2015. Available: http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/drone-popularity-draws-concern-pilots-federal-officials/story?id=34170741.

[2] S. Carter, “A battlefield of drones and privacy in your backyard,” The Chicago Tribune, Aug. 3, 2015. Available: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/commentary/ct-drones-privacy-laws-20150803-story.html.

[3] “Drone Crashes into Stands During U.S. Open Match, ” ABCNews.com, Sept. 3, 2015.  Available: http://abcnews.go.com/US/drone-lands-us-open-louis-armstrong-stadium/story?id=33525523.

[4] “Man who Crashed Drone on White House Lawn Won’t be Charged,” Dronelife News, March 19, 2015.  Available: http://dronelife.com/2015/03/19/man-who-crashed-drone-white-house-lawn-wont-be-charged/.

[5] “The Undercooked Debate on Domestic Drones,” Dronelife News, May 2, 2015.  Available: http://dronelife.com/2015/05/02/the-undercooked-debate-on-domestic-drones/.

[6] C. Forrest, “12 drone disasters that show why the FAA hates drones,” TechRepublic.com, March 20, 2015. Available: http://www.techrepublic.com/article/12-drone-disasters-that-show-why-the-faa-hates-drones/

[7] [5], supra.

[8] “Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Registration,” Federal Aviation Authority.  Available: https://www.faa.gov/uas/registration/.

[9] “Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Frequently Asked Questions,” Federal Aviation Authority. Available: https://www.faa.gov/uas/faq/.

[10] [2], supra.

[11] [2] supra.

[12] http://www.chicagotribune.com/topic/social-issues/brookings-institution-ORNPR000099-topic.html.

[13] C. Franzen, “The Anti-Drone Business is about to Take Off,” Popular Mechanics, May 1, 2015. Available: http://www.popularmechanics.com/flight/drones/a15328/droneshield-anti-drone-business/.

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