Rogue drones will be no match for these high-tech weapons

Exhibitors at the biggest defense technology fair are coming up with creative ways to defeat the threat of drones, beyond simply shooting them down.
June 17, 2016, 2:53pm
Screenshot via OpenWorks Engineering

Reports of rogue drones, sometimes flying over prohibited areas or endangering airplanes, have multiplied in the past few years, and software and systems developers have been racing to come up with counter-drone technology for both governments and corporate clients.

On Tuesday, French company CS Communication & Systèmes unveiled its latest anti-drone weapon at Eurosatory 2016 — the world's largest defense and security trade show, which runs until Friday in Paris.

The French capital has itself been wrestling with the question of how to tackle drones, after police reported a mysterious wave of drone flights over sensitive sites including the Eiffel Tower and the US embassy in 2015.

In fact, from October 2014 to March 2015, the French Interior Ministry recorded nearly 60 worrisome drone flyovers, including sightings of drones over several nuclear power stations in late 2014.

With financing from the French government, CS Communication & Systèmes — which describes itself as a "designer, integrator, and operator of mission critical systems" — has come up with a new system called Boréades that relies on multiple sensors to detect drones.

Project director Denis Chaumartin explained that one of the new system's sensors resembles a standard radar, but, unlike classic radars, will be able to pick up very small targets.

Since drones tend to give off very little heat, thus limiting the efficiency of a thermal sensor, the Boréades system also relies on an optronic sensor — the same technology that is used in infrared cameras.

Once the drone has been detected, Boréades will be able to jam its data connection and send it to the ground for a smooth landing, without having to shoot it down or somehow physically intercept it.

According to the makers of Boréades, the system can also track the transmitter to find the person who is operating the drone. If there are too many wireless signals — for example in large urban areas — the system also allows the user to follow the drone back to its base and find the operator that way.

While the main client for the system is the French government — which could rely on the system to protect the skies above military bases, airports, government buildings and prisons — private companies may soon be acquiring anti-drone technology, too. For example, organizers of the Euro 2016 soccer tournament could use the system to monitor the airspace above the "fanzones" — areas in the host cities where thousands of supporters have been gathering to watch games.

For now, though, any attempt to neutralize a drone must be carried out in the presence of a government official. Only the detection and tracking of drones can be undertaken without official approval.

"The most sensitive sites are without a doubt the official stands, like the ones [where officials sit] during the July 14 parade," said Chaumartin, referring to the traditional military parade down the Champs-Elysées in Paris on the French national day, attended by the president and pretty much every high official in the government. According to Chaumartin, public figures and officials could be an easy target for drones, many of which are strong enough to carry explosives. "Nuclear power stations are in fact less sensitive but more symbolic since these flyovers are particularly irksome to the authorities," he said.

Meanwhile, US systems developer Battelle unveiled its own anti-drone system at the Navy League Sea-Air-Space Exposition, last month at the Gaylord National Convention Center, in Maryland.

Battelle's spectacular-looking DroneDefender is held like a rifle and uses a radio beam to ground drones within a distance of 400 meters.

For now, the DroneDefender is available only to government agencies and has not yet been commercialized for the general public. The US Defense Department and Homeland Security Department have each purchased around 100 of these anti-drone beam guns.

Some developers are working on solutions to physically down drones. In March OpenWorks Engineering unveiled its SkyWall prototype, which shoots out a net to capture the drone, and then safely grounds it using a parachute.

A system like SkyWall, however, is efficient only if the person operating it is a good shot. Short of that, law enforcement agencies can always train a fleet of drone-hunting eagles, like the Dutch police.

Follow Pierre Longeray on Twitter: @PLongeray

This article originally appeared in VICE News' French edition.