Emerging Tech

Threat From Above: How to Stop Hostile Drones

Unmanned aerial vehicles — or “drones” as these flying objects more commonly are known — pose a growing danger, cybersecurity expert Kevin Townsend recently warned in a guest post for Avast.

The drone category is broad — it includes toys for hobbyists, tools forcommerce, and devices used for a variety of military purposes. They range in size from massive military drones that can be equipped with 500-pound laser-guided bombs andHellfire missiles, to small hobbyist devices that carry little more than a camera.

Drones are dangerous not only because they can be controlledremotely, but also because they can be operated with little humanintervention. When used with even a simple computer, a drone can beprogrammed to enter “enemy” airspace and conduct an attack.

Such a sortie doesn’t need to be limited to a battlefield. It couldbe mounted against seemingly soft targets, such as athletic stadiums, crowdedurban areas, and pretty much anywhere a foe might want to strike.

“There are many possible threats from small drones, including WiFisniffers that can hack into wireless networks, but thereis no evidencethis has actually happened yet,” said Michael Blades, vicepresident for aerospace, defense and security at Frost & Sullivan.

Some of the more ominous threat vectors: “platforms carryingweapons of mass destruction, like anthrax or other biohazardousmaterials; platforms carrying small bomblets for antipersonnel oranti-vehicle, which is occurring in the Middle East; and platforms withcameras that can conduct industrial espionage,” Blades toldTechNewsWorld.

Hell From Above

In addition to use by the military, there are commercialapplications for drones — including package delivery. Amazon is justone of several tech firms that have explored ways to use drones insuch a fashion.

The worry is whether such drones that could deliver a package ordinner could bring something more nefarious, such as a bomb.

“Drones are tools that are intrinsically neutral. Tthe user determinesif they will be used for good or bad, just like in the case of cars,for example,” suggested Yariv Bash, CEO of on-demanddrone delivery service Flytrex.

“Due to strict regulations, it is unlikely that a commercialized dronesystem can be used malevolently,” he told TechNewsworld.

“Flytrex is working with regulators to ensure the highest safetystandards to help ensure that drones cannot be used for maliciouspurposes,” Bash added.

However, the comparison with cars should be considered, as terroristshave used car bombs for decades, and more recently trucks have beenhijacked and used as weapons. It is a sadly likelihood thateven small off-the-shelf drones could be weaponized in ways that theoriginal designers may not have considered.

“These commercial drones are becoming more sophisticated andautonomous,” warned Nick Verini, CEO of ‘SmartRounds, a company that has been developing an anti-drone system.

“That is, they don’t need a pilot to reach a particular target, andthey can be programmed to follow a predetermined path using GPS orother means,” he told TechNewsWorld.

“They used to be considered toys but no longer — they are increasingin size, range and payload, which can be an explosive and can bedelivered with precision,” added Verini.

SAVAGE Response

Colorado-based SmartRounds this week announced that it hasdeveloped non-lethal “munitions” for dealing with small armed drones, including surface-to-air and air-to-air guided missiles — a newclass of smart “fire and forget” projections that could be used by themilitary, Homeland Security and law enforcement to take down UAVs thatpresent a clear and present danger to those on the ground.

The company received a U.S. patent for its Smart Anti-Vehicle AerialGuided Engagement (SAVAGE) missiles. These 40mm counter-UAV rounds canbe fired from custom-built multi-tube ground launchers, or on aspecial unit mounted on another drone. The rockets feature a titaniumnose cone that with enough kinetic energy can disable or destroy athreatening drone upon impact.

SAVAGE self-guided missile designed to disable or destroy a small enemy done

The SAVAGE self-guided missile is designed to disable or destroy a small enemy unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone.

“Our SAVAGE weapon system — missiles and launcher — is designed todisable or destroy these armed drones by using computer vision todetect and track them in flight and impact them with sufficient kineticenergy,” explained Verini.

The SAVAGE missiles are launched at a high velocity — in excess of 350mph — and each is equipped with an on-board CPU/GPU microprocessor tokeep it on target. Computer vision object detection, along withAI-based target tracking, plus the ability of multiple SAVAGE rocketsto communicate further, maximize effectiveness when dealing withmultiple threats.

The U.S. military has shown interest in the SAVAGE system, as have its NATO allies, according to the company.

Bigger Countersystems Needed?

The U.S. military, which has used drones for reconnaissance as well asin a “drone strike” capacity throughout the Global War on Terror, isamong only a handful of nations capable of creating large-scale weaponized drones.

However, terrorist groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria(ISIS) have been able to utilize small drones and quadcopters to droplight explosives and grenades. The threat from other terrorist groupsweaponizing commercial drones is one that the intelligence communityand law enforcement in the United States also have taken seriously.

FBI Director Christopher Wray testified at a 2017 Senate hearing about thepotential threat that terrorists might use drones against U.S. interestsoverseas.

The U.S.military, working with private industry, already has undertaken efforts to develop the tools to take down drones before they can strike. There have been efforts todevelop electronic warfare innovations to jam enemy dronesignals, but there are several initiatives that take a more directapproach.

“There has been quite of bit of activity with regard to developingsystems that can detect, locate, identify, track, and deter or mitigatesmall drone threats,” said Frost & Sullivan’s Blades. “There are wellover 200 companies globally that are marketing and/or developing over400 systems to provide a solution for the threat of small drones.”

Making the Skies Friendly Again

Not all the efforts need to be as blunt-force as missiles and rockets however.

“There are ways to safely take down drones,” said Blades. “There are net guns that can be fired from the ground or from other drones that have parachutes attached that can lower captured drones safely.”

One issue, however, is that the U.S. Federal Communications Commission and Federal Aviation Administration allow very little leeway for the use of such systems in their stringent regulations against activities such as wire-tapping, jamming radio signals, downing aircraft.

That is why these systems are more commonly used in areas like theMiddle East where the governments are more autocratic.

“In the U.S., other than for FAA testing and the like, all counterUAS/UAVs use is limited to federal government agencies,” notedBlades. “It will be some time before there are ‘rules of engagement’that allow law enforcement and other non-federal agencies to usecounter drone systems. Many of the systems being marketed have notbeen tested to determine how they might affect public and private radiospectrums, or if they detect, track and mitigate as advertised.”

Peter Suciu

Peter Suciu has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2012. His areas of focus include cybersecurity, mobile phones, displays, streaming media, pay TV and autonomous vehicles. He has written and edited for numerous publications and websites, including Newsweek, Wired and FoxNews.com.Email Peter.

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