The next time pranksters decide to fly their drone too close to an airport and put airplanes carrying hundreds of passengers at risk, security personnel may be able to avert disaster by using an anti-drone defense system. All they would have to do is use technology to remotely lock onto the flying robot, take control, and safely steer it from danger.
New technology from European aerospace giant Airbus is intended to do just that. It is pitched as a way to keep restricted airspace free of drones without having to go to extreme measures like shooting them down.
Airbus showed off a new drone-monitoring system this week at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The technology scrambles the wireless communications between drones and their owners, so that the authorities can then take control.
The new drone system uses a combination of infrared cameras, radio technology, and radar to pinpoint the location of drones at ranges as far away as 6.2 miles, according to Airbus. It then determines whether the drones may be flying in restricted airspace in addition to determining the pilot's location to help law enforcement track him or her down.
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Airbus's anti-drone system has been in development for the past year and half, said Meinrad Edel, a project manager for Airbus's defense and space division. Jamming technology used by the military to prevent road side bombs from exploding in Afghanistan served as the basis, he explained.
An operational version of the drone technology will be ready in mid-2016, according to Edel. An energy company is already using the system to monitor nuclear power plants, but Edel did not say which one. The German military is also a customer.
Technology for disrupting drones flying in restricted places is a big focus this year. Drone sales are expected to take off, with one technology trade associations expecting that over one million flying robots will be sold this year.
With all those drones in the skies, there are likely to be a growing number of incidents and accidents that are a consequence of flying in restricted airspace, such as near airports. Authorities have already complained about drones flying too close to air tankers fighting fires and another crash landing at the U.S. Open tennis tournament.
In November, the federal government, through a federal funded nonprofit research center called MITRE, announced a competition for engineers and researchers to develop technology similar to what Airbus has created. That competition emphasized drone-defense systems that would cause no safety problems in public places, which means rockets, shotguns, and other weaponry are all off the table.
In addition to Airbus's new technology, several drone makers like DJI have embedded geo-fencing technology into their drones that, in theory, prevents them from flying into restricted areas. If the FAA temporarily bans flights during a forest fire, drones should automatically get the message and lose the ability to enter the no-fly zone.
However, some researchers like R. John Hansman, a director of the MIT International Center for Air Transportation, believe that technology is easy for drone operators to circumvent if they don't want to comply with the rules.
Although Airbus’s new tech is promising, it's currently illegal in the U.S. to use so-called jamming technology. Only the federal government can give permission to scramble signals, according to the Federal Communications Bureau.
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The federal government claims that jamming technology, which can be used to also tamper with cell phone calls and text messages, are generally unable to “discriminate between desirable and undesirable communications,” according to an FCB document about jamming. Indeed, the federally sanctioned anti-drone competition requires participants to avoid technology that may interfere with cell phones and other devices.
Therefore, Airbus must likely get government clearance to commercialize its new system in the U.S. For its part, the company said that its system disrupts only routine communications between the rogue drones and their pilots, “while other frequencies in the vicinity remain operational.”
This year, Airbus' plan is to sell the drone-tracking system to U.S. federal agencies and law enforcement, said Edel. He conceded that it is pricey, but that the cost could decline as drone technology matures.