Jul 31, 2019

The emerging, untested drone defense industry

Illustration of buzzing drones around giant fly swatter

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The wildly unpredictable potential actions of drones are driving a new industry that promises to deflect, jam, take over, or just plain shoot them out of the sky.

What’s happening: More than 150 companies have already set up shop in a business said to be worth $2.3 billion in 5 years, even though few customers can legally use most of their products. For the defenders, the cowboy quality of some products creates an impossible choice between an errant drone and its antidote.

Big picture: In recent years, drones have become cheaper and easier to fly, crowding Christmas trees and birthday wishlists to the point that there are now well over a million of them in the U.S.

  • In response, government agencies, airports, sports leagues and prisons are scrambling to defend against the dangers posed by an errant drone.
  • They're animated by a drip-drip of stories about drone-related airport shutdowns and prison breaks, and an alarming potential for deadly drone attacks.
  • At conventions and on sales calls, they're being approached with promises of futuristic technology meant to detect drones or knock them to the ground.

But, but, but: As of now, even anti-drone technology is still hugely limited, experts say. None of the hundreds of devices on the market will work against every drone, and many don't work at all. "A lot of this is snake oil," says Francis Brown, CTO of Bishop Fox, a security firm.

  • Some techniques, like net guns, can be defeated with a simple cage built to protect a drone's rotors. Jammers and spoofers — which break a drone's connection to the operator or pretend to be the operator — can't overpower some drones.
  • If they do — or if a conventional weapon finds its mark — you've got a new problem: a plunging, spinning, battery-powered drone, perhaps over a parade or stadium.
  • Jammers cause another type of collateral damage: they can take down radio, GPS, and wi-fi nearby — which is why the FCC almost never allows them to be used.

What's happening: Police departments are acquiring these devices anyway — even though only four federal agencies are currently authorized to bring down drones.

  • The LA County Sheriff and Oceanside Police, near San Diego, tell Axios that they own DroneKillers, a device that overloads airborne drones with a digital signal so that they are forced to land.
  • IXI, the California company that makes the DroneKiller, says a third agency in Nevada is "about to" buy one.
  • Andy Morabe, IXI's marketing director, agues that these three agencies have been cleared to use counter-drone technology in a signed letter from the FBI director. But both California police departments say they have no such letter.

For now, confusion and legal hurdles are preventing use of the devices.

  • The LA County Sheriff's Department says neither of their two DroneKillers have ever been fired, and Oceanside's has been shelved for over a year.
  • "Any agency that's purchased any counter-drone system, there's no way for them to legally deploy it," says Jason Snead, a policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

What's next: Congress has mulled extending the authority to use counter-drone technology to state and local police, but haven't proposed anything yet. Police departments are clamoring for the permission.

  • If that happens, expect this tightly-wound industry to explode. Supply and demand are building, separated mostly by legal hurdles.
  • But a lack of national standards and rigorous testing — plus a ballooning market — means buyers have to wade through a sea of confounding options to find something that works.

"Real agencies and entities are investing in this technology without always knowing if it's going to work when you actually have a drone over your head," says Arthur Holland Michel, an expert at the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College.

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