There are now more small unmanned drones than conventional manned aircraft registered with the U.S. government, underscoring—for anyone still skeptical—that drones have shed their novelty status and entered the mainstream. But for all the recreational and economic activity created by the proliferation of small unmanned aircraft, the potential security and safety threats they pose continue to compound.
Consider the drone that crashed onto the White House lawn last year, or the one that crashed into the stands at the U.S. Open in September. Pilots have spotted small drones from the cockpits of commercial airliners and corrections officers have seen them smuggle contraband over prison walls. The same kinds of drones found under Christmas trees by the hundreds of thousands this year have reportedly been used by Islamic State militants to scope out targets for suicide bombers.
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Drones—even the very small ones—have a dangerous side, and Italian aerospace conglomerate Finmeccanica claims to have a solution. Dubbed “Falcon Shield,” Finmeccanica’s counter-drone system packs a suite of sensors and technologies into a single package that can identify, track, target, and seize control of small drones, company representatives say.
In densely populated environments where drones present a particular threat, the electronic warfare capabilities built into “Falcon Shield” could prove a better option than knocking drones out of the sky with some kind of physical projectile. It most certainly beats using actual falcons. (Or maybe not.)
Finmeccanica describes Falcon Shield as “scalable and modular,” meaning it can be tailored to monitor a relatively small airspace (over a public square or around a specific building) or a wider airspace like that surrounding a sports stadium or even an airport or military base. Operated by a small crew (one to two people), Falcon Shield’s sensors would continually sweep the airspace looking for small, incoming threats—the kinds that are too small for, say, an airport’s conventional radar to pick up.
It does so using a blend of infrared and electro-optical cameras, radar, and sensors that pick up on a drone’s electronic signals, and microphones that can detect the static whine of a small drone’s rotors. The system can then track the potential threat and—according to Finmeccanica—even trace the electronic signals it intercepts back to the drone’s controller.
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More importantly from a public safety perspective, the system also packs an electronic warfare capability that can either disrupt the communications link between the operator and the drone or even allow Falcon Shield’s operators to take control of the aircraft and land it safely away from people and property. The company claims it can do all this without interfering with other electronic communications in the area, like cell phone signals or channels used by emergency personnel.
A video released by the company depicts Falcon Shield in action, at first depicting small unmanned drones gathering imagery over a nuclear power plant and carry an explosive device into a sports stadium, then rewinding the action back to show how Falcon Shield could’ve intercepted the threat in each case. Though perhaps a bit alarmist (there’s actually computer animation of a drone delivering an explosive device to the crowded stands inside a sporting arena), it’s not altogether hyperbolic. Both military and law enforcement have thus far struggled to come up with meaningful ways to deal with the threats posed by small unmanned aerial vehicles short of knocking them out of the sky. That’s not always a safe option, particularly in crowded or urban environments.
Falcon Shield’s sensing and tracking technology was actually unveiled at Defense Security Equipment International—a London-based security exhibition—last year, but the critical electronic attack elements were still being integrated.
While Finmeccanica has not yet publicly disclosed how much the system will cost, the company is now in talks with potential customers, including some within U.S. Department of Defense, DefenseNews reports. As off-the-shelf drone technology continues to proliferate, such drone defense systems may soon become as ubiquitous as small drones themselves.