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Anti-Drone Technology: Coolest Tools You Can't Use

Anti-Drone Technology: Coolest Tools You Can't Use
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A new tech industry is on the rise in response to fears over malicious use of drones, but there's a catch. It's illegal in the U.S.

Commonly known as drones, unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) are sophisticated aircraft that can be piloted by almost anyone. This month, the FAA's long-awaited rule that permits commercial use of drones went into effect, and it's expected to greatly expand UAS use in the United States.

MORE: Businesses Can Legally Operate Drones Now

But security, safety and privacy concerns over UAVs have risen almost as fast as the growth in their use — and for good reason.

It's well known that wandering UAVs pose significant collision risks to private and commercial aircraft. During recent wildfires in the western U.S., the presence of UAVs resulted in grounding aerial fire suppression support aircraft, hindering the work of firefighters — risking lives and property loss.

Last year, an anti-nuclear protester landed a drone on the roof of the Japanese Prime Minister's office building, and a hobbyist UAV pilot accidentally crashed a wayward drone onto the White House lawn. Another UAV crash-landed just a few feet from a podium where German Chancellor Angela Merkel was set to address a crowd at an event.

The FAA makes its No Drone Zone press kit available online, and there are many such designated spaces. You can't fly within 30 miles of Washington, D.C. You can't fly above 400 feet, or near an airport. You couldn't fly anywhere near the Olympics, the U.S. Open or the Super Bowl. So how do you enforce those rules?

There's been a lot of buzz in recent months about the fast-developing anti-drone industry that has sprung up recently. In May, the Pentagon reportedly purchased anti-drone tech to solve wartime risks, and some agencies are testing emerging technology to enforce no-fly zones around airports.

But most civilian and commercial organizations operating solely inside the U.S. should probably put away their checkbooks for now. On U.S. soil, anti-drone technology can only be used by federal law enforcement and agencies, according to anti-drone technology companies and industry experts like Tom McMahon, vice president of advocacy and public affairs for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI). 

"The FAA does not like anyone taking aircraft out of the sky, manned or unmanned," McMahon said.

According to McMahon, a few states have passed or are considering legislation that would allow public safety agencies to take down drones that pose a threat to the public or interfere with public safety activity. But with those exceptions (and the FAA's reaction to such state laws is not yet clear), organizations that deploy anti-drone technology in the U.S. run afoul of the FAA's strict regulations prohibiting interference with aircraft and face criminal prosecution, fines and even jail time.

For educational purposes, here's a quick summary of anti-drone technology and what IT pros need to know right now.

Key Counter-Drone Technologies

Anti-drone technology is rapidly evolving, but current technology generally falls under four categories: detection, capture, grounding and destruction.

Detection

Radar and acoustics technology is used to identify drones that may be invisible to radar, including small plastic UAVs. Federal use includes monitoring established perimeters for drone breaches as part of attempts to prevent delivery of contraband. Popular Science reported that audio detection technology by DroneShield was deployed to protect the 2015 Boston Marathon route.

Capture

Netting the airborne drone is one way of capturing the UAV without posing a major risk to the public at large. Among these are net guns that are specifically designed to target, capture and disable drones, and drone-delivered nets and net cannons are also being tested. DroneShield's net guns were also reportedly at the ready at the 2015 Boston Marathon as a drone-specific weapon for police.

Grounding

Generally, these technologies jam or hack into UAV operating frequencies or software to take over the drone's controls. For example, Radio Hill Tech's Dronebuster either sends encroaching drones "home" or causes them to land without causing risk to the public. FCC regulations only allow federal agencies to use the technology, although state and local law enforcement use may be coming.

Destroy

The military uses radar-guided missiles, laser weapons and other weapons to destroy enemy drones. Signal jamming is also used to disable and destroy wartime drones. Developers of Maldrone claims to be the world's first backdoor malware that remotely hijacks drones by infecting drone software and shutting off its autopilot operation, causing it to crash.

Such experts as McMahon stress that if companies are worried about drone-based espionage, they should remember that privacy and trespassing laws apply to spying UAVs. But he and even the industry's top product developers issue strong cautions against U.S. use of anti-drone technology by consumers and companies.

"You don't want to mess with it," said Jake Sullivan, chief scientific officer for Radio Hill Tech, maker of Dronebuster. "It's illegal to use counter-drone technology in the U.S., whether net or RF. It's against the law to take down a drone, because it's the same as taking down an airplane."