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When Drones Go Rogue

November 1, 2016  By Rick Adams

The skies are filling with two-kilogram mechanical birds. Millions of them. Regulators are scrambling to keep up with the swarm of demand. Personal-injury lawyers are salivating over a new category of accidents. Electronics retailers are anticipating a robust holiday season.

In the first nine months of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) drone registration program, more than half a million unmanned aircraft were logged in (that’s twice the number of registered manned aircraft), and the US$5 sign-ups continue at 2,000 per day. In the first month that drone pilot licenses for commercial operators became available, nearly 14,000 people applied to take the exam; more than 5,000 passed it. The FAA now forecasts 1.3 commercial drone pilots by 2020. In comparison, since 2010, Transport Canada has issued about 7,000 operator certificates.

So, where will all those Parrots and Phantoms fly? Right now, pretty much everywhere. But the FAA is working with NASA and others on a low-altitude, drone-specific air traffic control system to accommodate package deliveries from Amazon and pizza parachutes from Dominos. One concept would use aircraft-style collision-avoidance systems and perhaps cell phone towers for data, navigation, surveillance and tracking of drones.


But what about rogue drones which don’t follow the designated skylanes and ignore no-drone zones such as airports, sensitive government installations, and large crowds of people at sporting or entertainment events? How do you prepare not only for stupid hobbyists but also the Terrorists-R-Us who can manipulate a joystick or program GPS coordinates?

A year ago, a drone was used to deliver a handgun into the Riviére-des-Prairies detention centre in Montreal, which reportedly houses some of the country’s most notorious mafia and street gang criminals. Activists protesting German government surveillance policies made their point by landing a drone on a dais in front of Chancellor Angela Merkel at a campaign event. More ominously, a drone deposited a vial containing radioactive material on the roof of the Japanese prime minister’s office.

Numerous start-ups and power players are working feverishly to create systems, which can detect and ideally disable or capture wayward drones.

A Defence Research and Development Canada study on countermeasures against drone surveillance, published in May, examined:

  • Audio detection: the acoustic signature from spinning propellers and electronic motors. (but range is limited to 150 metres and the sound can be muffled or altered);
  • Video camera detection: A 100 m range limit, does not work at night or in mist and fog, and prone to false alarms triggered by birds;
  • Thermal detection – A 100 m range limit, subject to weather conditions, and problematic in detecting plastic and carbon fibre materials;
  • Conventional radar  – Also hard to distinguish from birds and may create a radiation hazard to people in urban areas.

One of the more promising detection technologies would use the drone’s own radio frequency (RF) emissions, though admittedly this would not work for drones programmed to fly autonomous routes using targeted coordinates, emitting no RF signals.

Airbus’ Defence and Space unit has developed infrared cameras and direction finders to spot drones at up to 10 kilometres. If considered a threat, the system jams the link between the drone and its pilot or navigation system. The jammer may even be able to take control of the flyer, i.e. hack into the drone’s software. Which begs the question, if the good guys can hack and take over a drone, can’t the bad guys do the same? Indeed, as early as four years ago, drug cartels “spoofed” drones operated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security border patrol.

Three British companies have developed the Anti-UAV Defense System (AUDS), also known as a “drone death ray,” which switches off the drone in mid-flight. Another method injects malware into the drone’s operating system, causing it to plummet to the ground. There are also white-hat interceptor drones which drop disabling nets over the black-hat drones. Or nets might be fired from compressed-air cannons on the ground or building roofs. Hopefully the stricken drone does not fall on anyone’s head and is not carrying a brick of C4.

Expect, also, a wave of electronic gizmos on the market offering “personal drone intrusion protection.” Now, of course, that blasting drones out of the sky with a shotgun can bring a jail sentence.

My favourite to date is the quite low-tech Dutch police solution: eagles trained to grab errant drones in their talons, then deposit them safely on the ground.

Rick Adams is chief perspectives officer of AeroPerspectives, an aviation communications consultancy in Switzerland, and is the editor of ICAO Journal.

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