One evening early this year, CCTV cameras in Wandsworth prison south London captured a footage of a GPS-guided drone with a black parcel fastened to it hovering near the jail’s window. When it was too close to the window hole, a prisoner reached out to hook the package using a stick and yanked it inside. The prison guards were able to retrieve the delivery and found drugs and mobile phones inside.
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Using drones to smuggle drugs into prisons has unfortunately become a common incident nowadays. Besides delivering contraband, illegally flown drones are also being used by paparazzi to spy on celebrities, by thieves casing properties, and other outrageous activities. What’s more troubling are the complaints that there are drones that are flying in the same altitude as aircraft does. Government security officials are worried that terrorists could use this method to drop bombs and other equally—if not more horrendous—armaments like biological weapons.
Although in some states, there are already existing rules that will regulate the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, experts believe that there is a need for drone countermeasures. Military drones have already adopted some like targeting it down with lasers. But there is a little hesitation regarding this call of action in dealing with small-time drone users flying in public places.
Other methods are being sought by MITRE, a nonprofit US organization that operates R&D offices supported by the federal government, by organizing a contest. MITRE shortlisted ten contenders to join the non-kinetic system challenge in August. The system should be capable of detecting and seizing small illegally flown drones weighing 5 lbs (2.3 kg) or less. The challenge aims to find a reliable system that is capable of extensive deployment. The chosen system will receive $100,000 worth of prizes and a chance to work with federal agencies.
The challenges faced by the competition is not the technology, it’s the easiest actually, according to Duane Blackburn, a policy analyst at MITRE. It is the legal issues due to various rules and regulations that are posing a problem to them.
To detect a small GPS drone quadcopter from a distance, a powerful transmitter is needed, but such equipment are strictly regulated in the US by Federal Communication Commission. Meaning, this kind of device is difficult not to mention expensive to obtain.
The competitors plan to deal with this challenge by intercepting radio signals between the illegally flown drone and its pilot. Though there are drones that can fly autonomously, they still use some form of radio communication in transmitting commands like which direction to go, right or left, up or down, and there’s the video link from the drone’s camera.
Department 13, a technology firm with branches around Baltimore, developed a system called Mesmer. The system can detect radio signals as well as identify the drone’s type. Mesmer’s great feature is it can take over the drone itself using its own signals.
Radio Hill, a New Jersey–based company, developed The Dronebuster, a system that can point-and-shoot at the drone in question. It has the capability to disrupt the drone’s communication or GPS system, which can affect the GPS-programmable drone’s return-to-home function.
The third contender is Lockheed Martin, an American group. Their system ICARUS utilizes several sensors to give warning in the event a suspicious GPS-controlled drone is detected. It also has a selection of counter-measures including taking command. The system can be set automatically.
Still, those systems have a long way to go legally before it can be approved. Based on FCC rulings, intercepting drone as well as jamming signals are against the law, that’s according to Alex Heshmaty of Legal Words, a British legal-services company. It is considered a breach of anti-hacking law to disrupt the system of another drone without authorization.
And even if these rules are bypass, FAA does not allow interference when an aircraft is in the air. These rules are existing in many countries including Britain. Andrew Charlton, a drone expert and Swiss Aviation consultancy manager, says that feasible countermeasure will be available sooner or later, but a review of rules and regulations is needed if it’s to be implemented in other countries.