The FAA recently reported that unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), commonly referred to as drones, will experience phenomenal growth as more commercial adoption occurs among hobbyists, students, professionals, and others. In fact, small-hobbyist UAS are expected to double from 1.1 million in 2017 to 2.4 million in 2022 in the United States alone. With drones causing rapid change to the airspace as we know it, what impact do these fleets have on air traffic safety and overall safety in the sky? And how can counter-drone solutions help alleviate these issues?
We recently sat down with Jonathan Hunter, Chairman and CEO of Department 13 (D13), a company that develops wireless and mobile solutions that transform networks and communications. D13 has developed a patented technology that manipulates radio waves to identify and control airborne drones. Most of the solutions developed by D13 are based on operational experience that Hunter and his team gained while in the field serving our country.
With the rise of drones, Hunter says we need to rethink our airspace, consider the many tiers of airspace that are now evolving, and create ways to manage those tiers effectively. With drones now in the air, management of this new tier of airspace will be vital. Hunter explains why drone defense is so critical and why counter-drone technology is so significant in today’s new airspace in this recent interview:
The New Airspace Editors: Tell us about the rise of drones and the impact they have on the airspace.
Jonathan Hunter (JH): The impact of drones is significant. Even the estimation that there are more than 1 million drones in the U.S. skies only takes into consideration the systems we know are in the air. I recently traveled back from South Korea where I did one of the largest counter-UAS demonstrations to date. I also was in New Zealand, where they have had 73 known drone incursions into airports, military facilities and other protected airspace over a 12-month period. I can almost guarantee you that these issues were non-criminal. Yet, that is a significant number of incidents.
In fact, most of the nuisances we see are non-criminal. Often it’s a tourist, or someone who has bought the drone for their child, or someone trying to capture amazing footage. Yet, as the user might be taking amazing footage, they don’t realize that they are right next to a military installation or near an airport. We need safeguards in place to make sure that a drone can be removed from that airspace in a manner that isn’t destructive. We approach it by offering a way to take control of the drone, reset it and give it back to the user.
The New Airspace Editors: How did the counter-drone technology develop?
JH: We started research around the idea that you can affect radios at the protocol level. We did some work for DARPA and Office of the Secretary of Defense and had lots of conversations and coffee, during which we discussed trends and identified military technologies coming to the commercial market, specifically through the Industrial Scientific Medical band, with the FBI. In our research, we learned what portions of the radio could be affected – not just drones – but how you can control radios. Using Wi-Fi, laptops, and Internet of Things, we were able to take down a drone in a demonstration using a unique counter-drone solution.
For example, most people don’t know that you can take down a drone without jamming it. We are the only ones who have created counter-drone technology without jamming or attacking the device. Using a jammer, you know that the drone will be impacted, but you don’t necessarily know how. We are communicating at a protocol level to control the device, using a software-based solution. With protocol manipulation, we can control where a drone lands and how it is handled without damaging it. Whether it is for commercial or government use, we believe this is the only way to control the outcome of an engagement with a drone.
The New Airspace Editors: What are some of the current applications of counter-drone technologies?
JH: Currently, we see the applications in three different use cases. The first is critical infrastructure support, which helps identify and detect drones around iconic bridges and critical infrastructure. There also is use of counter-drone technologies for federal prisons, where we are preventing drones from delivering contraband weapons and/or drugs into prisons. And, finally, we have systems being used in defense in the middle of remote geographic locations around the world.
Along with the growth in UAS, we see a growing need for counter-drone systems across commercial and government segments. From the entertainment industry, to top energy, to oil and gas companies, to sporting associations, and many more, there is express interest in these technologies.
The New Airspace Editors: What does the future of the airspace look like, in your opinion?
JH: From a federal standpoint, I believe a drone air traffic control system for the commercial level is probably five to 10 years away. With the proliferation of hobbyist drones, and the sheer volume of drones being played with in backyards, however, we simply are never going to have the level of security we need to stop the potential of these drones being spoofed or hacked with current solutions. Jammers are not going to be effective in urban environments, so to control these drones there will have to be integrated counter-drone solutions implemented in high-threat areas, such as around airports or military installations, where there are more risks.
From a legal standpoint alone, this will probably be discussed for the next 10-15 years to determine what happens when a drone enters into secure airspace and is taken over and whether ownership of the drone moves to the entity that has taken it over. We will find a way, because we have to find a way. Drones will be an integral part of our ecosystem going forward, and we will start to see integration of drones – from deliveries, to taxies and more – starting in the next five years. It will be an interesting time to watch the evolution. But we’ve done it before with the development of cars, and we’ll do it again.