As long as careless or untrained drone pilots continue to make headlines by crashing UAVs into high-profile, high security areas like the White House (twice) and the Japanese Prime Minister’s office, the UAV sector will continue to face a mountainous PR problem. In fact, unless developers can counter fears of drone crashes or worse, the entire industry could face the chilling specter of succumbing to a public Frankenstein complex, if not outright media hysteria.
If drones are to thrive, it’s inevitable that counter-drone technology will be deployed at government buildings, corporate headquarters and maybe even over private communities. This will require a careful balancing act by regulators, consumers, privacy advocates and drone companies as they must mitigate the freedom of drone operators to fly for both fun and profit and public safety. An overview of counter-drone tech indicates there is hope a sane solution can emerge from the often overblown headlines.
Washington, D.C.-based DroneShield uses acoustic technology to detect incoming drones from up to 150 yards and then send emails or text messages to a monitoring service if a drone – even a small, plastic model – approaches a specified perimeter. Prisons have started using the product to stop drones from delivering contraband such as cell phones of drugs to prisoners.
DroneShield proved that it could also operate in a noisier, less stable environment when it deployed detectors at the recent Boston Marathon. The entire marathon route had been declared a “no-drone zone” by city officials and Hearing reported no drones during the race.
Other potential clients include the producers of the latest Star Wars movie, who hope DroneShield can do a better job keeping sneak-peeking, photography geek drones away from their closed sets than the Empire could at keeping away those pesky X-Wings (but seriously, who leaves an exhaust port just open like that? C’mon, Death Star contractors!).
Not every counter-drone application is as polite as DroneShield. While the device simply informs others when drones approach, Maldrone may be the world’s first drone virus – infecting approaching drones with malware and dropping them out of the air like a bag of hammers. The Python-language script has been successfully tested by inserting the code into a Parrot AR Drone via Wi-Fi.
“[The] software then demonstrates running some standard Linux commands on the drone’s onboard computer, which in this case simply returns the version of Linux it’s running, but could just as easily report data from the drone’s sensors back to the attacker. Finally, the malware shuts off the drone’s autopilot system, causing it to drop out of the sky like a brick.” (Source).
Maldrone was originally intended to demonstrate security vulnerabilities in consumer-level drones rather than as a malicious “drone death ray.” Nevertheless, it’s not difficult to see how such a drone zapper could easily be distributed among the hacker community as a malicious way to stop drones.
On the opposite end of the spectrum from Maldrone rides the Pwnie Express. While the Vermont-based company is not invested in counter-drone solutions as a primary product, the company offers anti-hacking solutions that could at the very least stop a drone from flying near a device and inserting some kind of malicious code via WiFi.
The company states that its mission is to “mitigate the growing attack surface created by the emerging threat vector from the Internet of Everything. This includes high-risk BYOx, vulnerable IoT devices, and purpose-built malicious hardware.” That means that Pwnie products can self-test device security and sweep for outside risks, including drones.
Conventional wisdom says the DJI Phantom that landing on the White House lawn literally flew under the radar and was too small to be detectable. Specialty radar company DeTect begs to differ. The Florida-based company has developed technology that would automate the tricky process of fine-tuning the radar to find drones flying amid other clutter like birds and ground objects. DeTect has already contracted with a company in Spain in helping detect various airborne objects around a drone-testing facility.
Happiness is a Warm Anti-drone Gun
At the end of the day, drone defenders can spend thousands if not millions of dollars deploying the fanciest of drone detectors or zappers. But maybe the Elmer Fudd approach is the most effective countermeasure – at least that’s the philosophy of Larry Breaux.
A viral video showing Breaux shooting down a drone with a rifle demonstrates that low-tech solutions will always be available (albeit illegal or legal depending on the state). Note: While Breaux’s Gary-Busey-esque solution may be seen as a symbol for extreme anti-drone measures, there is some indication the entire incident may be a publicity stunt for a Kickstarter project.