DJI's Phantom 3 drone.
Phot courtesy of DJI

A non-profit group will hold a competition next fall designed to help prevent drone attacks and accidents.

By Jonathan Vanian
December 2, 2015

The federal government is seeking advice on disabling drones after they fly into restricted areas that doesn’t involve blasting them with shotguns or shooting them down with missiles.

A nonprofit called MITRE, which operates federally funded research and development centers, is hosting a competition aimed at creating technologies to help law enforcement prevent drone disasters. As it is, there is little authorities can do to stop drones from crashing into the stands at a packed sports stadium or being used as flying bombs.

On Wednesday, MITRE senior multidisciplinary systems engineer Michael Balazs gave more details about the competition, which was first announced in November. He said that the competition will take place in the fall and detailed some of the challenges the contestants must overcome.

“The need to defend critical infrastructure in a domestic, urban environment is a critical issue,” Balazs said.

The competition is open to engineers and researchers who are building drone-tracking systems and tools to take drones down safely while in flight. The contestant who develops the best drone tracking system will win $20,000 as will the one who comes up with the best way to take down a drone safely.

Meanwhile, MITRE’s judges will also award $60,000 to the best system that can both track and take down a drone. If one system wins in all categories, it’s possible to collect all $100,000 said Jonathan Rotner, a MITRE scientist.

But landing the big payday will be no simple task. Participants must design a tracking system that can recognize when a drone may fly into a restricted area. The technology should also be able to safely divert the drone and make it land in a safe area where there’s a slim chance that a bystander would get hurt.

The technology must pinpoint potentially dangerous drones as quickly as possible, so that law enforcement will have time to intervene, Balazs said. And, of course, it needs to be affordable.

The competition’s emphasis on safety also means that contestants will be unable to submit military-grade drone systems that use weaponry to take down aircraft. “Explosives, guns, missiles, and lasers are all off the table,” said Balazs.

MITRE will put contestants’ entries to the test in fall 2016 by using flying fleets of commercially available quadcopters, all under five pounds, in a range of scenarios.

For instance, the simulation may involve buildings in a city that need to be protected, with a designated “potential threat zone” set up that the drones must be prevented from entering, Balazs explained. Making it doubly tricky, some copters will be programmed to fly into the no-fly-area, while some will be programmed to avoid it. The challenge for the contestants’ tracking systems will be to single out the drones that are programmed to fly in the “potential threat zone.”

As amusing as this all may sound, the competition is actually mimicking real-world circumstances. In August, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer proposed a law that would require drones to be outfitted with so-called geofencing technology designed to prevent the aircraft from flying in designated “no-fly-zones” like airports or critical infrastructure. Additionally, some drone manufacturers like DJI are building geofencing capabilities into their aircraft that prevents them from entering restricted areas.

In September, a drone crash landed at the U.S. Open tennis tournament. And then weeks later, a drone flew near a LAPD helicopter during an investigation, further alarming government officials.

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