On Tuesday, May 23rd the next episode of Breakthrough, National Geographic’s popular documentary series, will premiere at 10pm ET. The title of the next show in the series is ‘Game of Drones’. The program charts the rise of anti-drone technology and follows a number of teams competing in the Counter Unmanned Aerial Systems Challenge.
For those of you that don’t know, the Counter Unmanned Aerial Systems Challenge is essentially a war game organized by MITRE, a drone tech company that works closely with federal authorities. The challenge is open to competitors all around the world who compete for major prize money. The task at hand? MITRE is looking for solutions to detect and safely interdict small UAS (weighing less than 5 lbs.) that pose a potential safety or security threat in urban areas.
Game of Drones is directed by Brendan and Emmett Malloy and narrated by JK Simmons. The show looks into why MITRE is running the Challenge in the first place and concentrates on a few of the participants. It’s all very dramatic:
“With any technology such as this there are one thousand good ways to use it and that one bad way….”If it’s not controlled very tightly there is going to be a disaster”.
That’s how Breakthrough’s latest episode opens, contrasting positive shots of different drone use cases with words of impending doom and a tone that tells you things are about to go south, fast.
But not all drone applications are or have been positive, as JK Simmons is quick to point out. In fact, just two and a half minutes in he compares the German Luftwaffe’s antics in World War 2 to that parody video in which a film crew from Finland attached a chainsaw to a drone and started massacring defenceless snowmen. Context is rarely applied when judging issues in the drone industry, so why start here?
But the threat in question is a genuine one. That’s why MITRE’s Game of Drones has received so much attention. Professional-grade drones are getting small, cheaper and more powerful. And although the vast majority of people use them for good, in the wrong hands they could be weaponized. They already are in the Middle East.
Things do get more sensible the longer the episode goes on. There’s some interesting insight from 3DR founder Chris Anderson, who appropriately speaks about the dawn of the consumer drone market.
And then it all comes to a head at the two-week-long Counter Unmanned Aerial Systems Challenge. Wildly different drone-killing systems attempt to fend off waves of drone attacks. The solutions include:
- OpenWorks Engineering from the UK – The team attempt to fire nets out of a bazooka and capture the drones in midair with mixed success.
- Department 13 – The team manipulate the radio communication protocol and effectively hijack the link between drone and operator. Unfortunately, the technique is completely ineffective against DJI’s Lightbridge connectivity.
- Drone Ranger – The team can effectively block manual control but can’t seem to handle drones flying on auto pilot.
Jonathon Rotner, MITRE’s challenge co-leader puts it best when he says that: “each individual system has its positives and its negatives – there’s still going to be gaps and drones you can’t defeat.”
There’s no silver bullet, but little doubt that a combination of all the participants’ techniques could provide serious opposition to anyone attempting to wreak havoc with a drone.
The Game of Drones episode of National Geographic’s Breakthrough series is well worth a watch. Catch it next Tuesday at 10pm ET.