Four ways to reduce the threat of small drones

Four ways to reduce the threat of small drones
© Greg Nash

Small drones are making the news these days, and not always in a good way: A scare over Fenway Park in Boston. An apparent attempt to assassinate President Maduro of Venezuela. Diverted flights at Newark Airport and canceled flights at Britain’s Gatwick Airport, causing major travel disruption. And earlier this year, Houthi rebels used a drone to target a Yemeni government base during a military parade, killing six people and wounding many others.

With all the benefits that small drones provide — everything from farming to rescue operations — they can also be dangerous. Their threats are more varied, complex, and potentially lethal than most people probably realize. If we do nothing, a drone causing the loss of life in the United States is probably just a matter of time.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) and Airports Council International-North America (ACI-NA) recognize this risk — and formed the Blue Ribbon Task Force on Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) Mitigation at Airports a few weeks ago.

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After exploring the threat characteristics of small UASs (drones under 55 pounds), we have some suggestions the task force and government agencies may want to consider to make drones safer — both near airports and in other scenarios. 

Some quick background: Ten years ago, most drones were remotely piloted aircraft. They were often custom built and flown by model aircraft enthusiasts for fun. Today, highly capable commercial systems are sold for a few hundred dollars to a wide variety of operators. Some just like to fly or race, others want a “flying camera," and still others are pursuing commercial applications.

But there are also bad actors who use drones to spy on individuals, businesses, or our government; disrupt flights; deliver contraband; or even harm others.

Innovation is rapid, with models becoming obsolete in less than a year. The combination of an exponential increase in aircraft volume operating in urban, populated areas; the ability to fly with increased autonomy; and advanced tracking capabilities pose a significant threat to the public. And soon, single operators will be able to routinely control drone swarms that will be even more dangerous and difficult to defeat.

Following are the primary characteristics of drone threats:

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  • Interference: Not only are drones a potentially catastrophic risk to aircraft, but their radio frequency emissions can interfere with wireless networks and communications systems.
  • Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissanceSmall drones can hide in plain sight, making it easier for bad actors to do anything from stealing trade secrets to coordinating a ground attack.
  • Smuggling/conveyance: Small drones are effective at bypassing physical security and have been used to transport drugs and other illegal materials into prisons and across international borders.
  • Weaponization: Drones can carry and dispense chemicals/biological agents, radiological materials, explosives — or even be flown as projectiles into crowds.

Drones aren't going away — nor should they. They can literally help save lives. But to minimize threats from bad actors, here are four recommendations for federal agencies and organizations to consider that can improve drone safety:

  1. Make drones readily identifiable:Establish a mechanism to identify and track in real time authorized drone operations, especially those going beyond the operators' line of sight. This likely means requiring all drones to broadcast a unique identification signal and their position at regular intervals. This will help law enforcement and security personnel focus attention on potentially bad actors by being able to quickly rule out compliant drones.
  2. Focus detection and defeat mechanisms on immutable features:As technology matures, detection and defeat mechanisms relying solely on radio frequency communications links and GPS will become less and less effective. Research and development should focus on detect and defeat mechanisms that concentrate on immutable features, such as the 1) airframe mass, 2) on-board electronics, and the 3) means of propulsion. This includes developing systems that can divert, capture, or destroy small drones in flight over populated areas.
  3. Increase operator education and training:Continue to develop and evolve education and training for operators to ensure compliance with applicable laws and regulations and reduce unintended safety and security threats.
  4. Enhance defense through resiliency and layers:No one sensor modality will detect all drones in all circumstances. Leveraging multiple sensor modalities (e.g., radar, radio frequency, and electro-optical) to detect aircraft is likely to be most effective. Similarly, no single defeat mechanism can mitigate all threats. We believe layers of multiple sensors and defeat mechanisms will be the best approach. 

Just as the benefits of drones are real, the threats are too. Again, if nothing changes, a tragedy is likely just a matter of time. We must address the threat of small drones — and we must do it now.

Yosry A. Barsoum is vice president and director of the Homeland Security Systems Engineering and Development Institute at The MITRE Corporation. Andrew Lacher is an autonomy integration and adoption lead at MITRE and a recognized expert in safety and security of unmanned and autonomous systems. For more detail, see the whitepaper: Small Unmanned Aircraft: Characterizing the Threat.