“The next generation of drone threats will be swarms and completely autonomous drones”

Ryan Hodgens is Director of Business Development at WhiteFox Defense Technologies Inc

How would you characterize the counter-UAS market, in terms of geography and customers (defence, security, law enforcement) profile?

On a global scale, as commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) drones become increasingly inexpensive, popular, and powerful, so does the need for an effective and safe counter-UAS system. Initially, when it came to drone news, headlines predominantly involved the nuisance of them being used to spy on unhappy neighbours or the legality of using a shotgun to shoot down a trespassing drone. Now, the drone headlines you read in the paper typically include drones being used to drop contraband over prison walls, drones colliding with passenger aircraft, and drones being used by ISIS to carry out targeted aerial explosive payload drops. Drones have a huge potential to technologically advance the way we live and 99% of the time they are used for great purposes. However, it’s the 1% of drone pilots who are careless or criminal that counter-UAS protects against. A counter-UAS system that is able to autonomously and safely protect critical infrastructure, public safety, and our soldiers is desperately needed.

Do you see this changing over the next five years?

The FAA released a forecast that estimates there will be 7 million new hobbyist and commercial UAS sales in 2020. The issue of how to properly manage the airspace is not going away.

From your perception of the market how far has the concept of C-UAS been embraced by non-military customers, such as those responsible for securing the airspace above prisons, airports, power stations, crowds etc?

The only way to learn about a problem is to talk to those who are currently experiencing it. Through my time spent in the counter-UAS industry, I’ve had the opportunity to talk with hundreds of people from all over the world. Through these conversations, I’ve learned that non-military security representatives tasked with protecting their facilities like prisons, airports, stadiums, and nuclear power plants from drone threats are frustrated. They see the problem every day and, with the current systems they’re seeing on the market, they don’t feel they can effectively or safely mitigate the threat. What they’re seeing are typically jammers which indiscriminately disrupt all WiFi and RF signals and, without any control, either cause the drone to crash or return home. Unfortunately, bad actors are known to change the home point to be the coordinates of the target so the jammed drone then flies directly to the target. WhiteFox’s counter-UAS system, the DroneFox, has the ability, however, to autonomously protect these high-security areas by taking complete control of an intruding drone and rerouting it to any predetermined safe location.

What are the main technical challenges in identifying and disabling drones flying into prohibited areas?

The current method of identifying drones in prohibited areas is either by visually looking for a drone, or by expensive sensors that only tell you there is a drone in “this general direction.” On the disable side, the difficult part is the art of doing it safely and without the need for an operator. The DroneFox is able to pinpoint the GPS coordinates of the intruding drone, put them on a live-updated map, and if it attempts to enter a restricted zone the DroneFox can automatically lock out the original pilot and command the drone to either return to launch site, perform a controlled soft landing, disable motors, or fly to a predesignated and/or safe location.

Where do you see the next generation of threats coming from – for example, how much of a challenge is it for technology suppliers are yourselves to identify and deal with autonomous, more stealthy drones?

The next generation of drone threats will be swarms and completely autonomous drones. Swarms are defined as multiple drones employed at one time to complete a common goal while completely autonomous drones are those that do not operate using radio frequencies, GPS, WiFi, Bluetooth, or any other form of signal communication. They are challenging issues for their own separate reasons. Swarms require a system that can effectively mitigate the threats at an extremely rapid rate. Completely autonomous drones, however, require a multi-layered defense system. A system is needed that can detect both RF and non-RF emitting drones, pinpoint the exact location of the drone through different types of sensors, and then mitigate the threat through a hardkill-defeat.

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