UAS Technology Catches the Eye of UK and US Militaries

UK Defence Minister Gavin Williamson’s announcement that British armed forces are in the midst of developing drone “squadrons” created a buzz in both the defense and UAS worlds. Appearing at an engagement at the Royal United Services Institute, Mr. Williamson spoke of swarms of tiny UAS steered by a single pilot and designed to saturate and eventually completely overwhelm enemy air defenses.

The move comes as the Minister maneuvers to close budget and manpower shortages by employing AI and a combination of commercial and military technology.

The US Air Force Joins the Game

Britain is far from alone in its interest as cheaper drone models are seducing military strategists worldwide. In 2018, the Pentagon included UAS among the emerging technologies it was looking to incorporate into its new “Flight Path” strategy for the US Air Force. It came to that conclusion after Red Team exercises revealed that traditional staples of US air power like Predator and Global Hawk military drones were becoming a thing of the past.

“Gremlins” – DARPA’s project to “develop a full-scale technology demonstration featuring the air recovery of multiple low-cost, reusable UAS.”

“What we see is that the traditional big wing ISR has been routinely losing effectiveness over time,noted Kenneth Bray, the Air Force’s deputy chief for ISR, at a conference held in August 2018, adding that the Pentagon was not going to wait to move forward with new innovations, even if there will still a few kinks to work out.

Drones, specifically devices made of lower cost, sometimes mass-produced materials, provide an interesting alternative to the much more expensive Predators of old. And they bring with them the additional benefit of speed, with their artificial intelligence powered sensors and processors allowing airmen more leeway to think critically rather than merely process data according to another official.

From a Trickle to a Torrent

Of course, those in know are aware that expensive materials and sophisticated AI aren’t obligatory to turn a drone into a military asset.

The separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine has been marked by a steady stream of commercial and locally produced drones employed by both sides in a surprisingly wide variety of roles: providing surveillance footage of on the emplacement of artillery, tanks, and rocket systems, smuggling of provisions and even “kamikaze” drones designed to be sacrificed in an attack on enemy forces.

An emphasis on surveillance and attack was similarly observed in fights with the Islamic State during the Syrian Civil War as well as the effort to push the jihadist fighters out of Mosul, Iraq. Coalition troops regularly reported being harassed by quadcopters and dozens of Iraqi troops were killed or wounded by 40-millimeter grenades and light explosives dropped from UAS buzzing just out of reach, described by one serviceman as “killer bees.”

In most cases the devices were either off-the-shelf hobby drones modified to carry a single explosive or locally-produced UAS whipped up out of mix of homemade and commercially available parts, often sourced through third parties from unsuspecting wholesalers in Europe and Asia.

Beyond the Middle East, Islamic State affiliates in the Philippines, Libya and Yemen have reportedly used drones for surveillance as well Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

For Dan Gettinger, co-director of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College, nothing can stop the coming flood of UAS expected to darken the skies of battlefields all over the globe: “The U.S. military and any military has to prepare for an operating environment in which enemy drones are not just occasional, but omnipresent,” adding, “Whether it’s a small, tactical UAS, midsize or strategic, drones of any size will be commonplace on the battlefield of the future.

The Chinese and Iranian Factors

The easy availability of drone technology itself might be partly to blame for their increasing presence in war. The devices can be mass-produced cheaply, parts are simple to procure and online vendors can ship them to virtually any part of the world.

Even for UAS specifically conceived for combat, prices are falling as producers like China are challenging American dominance in the field in more ways than one. A report on drone proliferation in the Middle East released by the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies noted that in addition to the relatively low cost of Chinese made drones, China’s “no questions asked” sales methods did much to contribute to the jump in drone numbers in Middle Eastern nations:

“Purchasing armed drones from China, a country which does not abide by the MTCR, enables them to gain access to this technology without being barred by international norms. Although Chinese operators often conduct initial sorties, including combat ones, they do not appear to insist on particular procedures but instead enable and teach new users to employ their armed UAVs as they wish.”

The report also names Iran as an emerging manufacturer of low cost (and no strings attached) UAV technology, noting that Iran does discriminate between state and non-state actors such as insurgent groups. Though evidence and details are still “feeble”, it is suspected that Iran “might have supplied armed drones to Hamas, Hizbullah and the Houthis as well as the regime of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria.

As noted in a previous blog post, some non-state groups have become particularly adept at adapting Iranian or Chinese low-grade military drone technology with the addition of commercial parts or technology to produce a sort of “Frankendrone” that while clunky, gets the job done.

The Houthi rebels of Yemen are an excellent example of this. In January 2019 they sent an armed Iranian-made Qasef-1 fitted with civilian GPS to attack a Government military parade, killing several including a high-ranking intelligence official.

A Problem of Speed

Even though militaries appear to be enthusiastic about the potential of UAS and well aware of the risks stemming from its proliferation – actual rollout of reliably functional battle drones seems to be proceeding at a slower pace than many would prefer.

In the case of the UK, many were skeptical of Williamson’s promise that the UK could develop drone swarm squadrons “ready to be deployed by the end of this year (2019)” with one expert stating that the idea of swarm drones was “very much at the concept stage, and it’s very unlikely he can meet the deadline of the end of the year.

Indeed, for the moment the most dynamic players in the new drone arms race appear to be non-state actors, who faced with the overwhelming fire power and budgets of traditional state militaries are making due with what they can find and in an often very effective and potentially deadly way. It seems necessity really is the mother of invention.

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After Gatwick Could Sports Venues Be the Next Great Drone Debacle?

Stadiums Are At Risk From Rogue Drones

After a rather unfortunate end to 2018, Gatwick Airport administrators have learned that a little prevention goes a long way. Europe’s 8th busiest airport is busy installing anti-drone solutions to keep the UAVs away and airport authorities around the globe are following their example and investigating ways of protecting their own runways. Continue reading “After Gatwick Could Sports Venues Be the Next Great Drone Debacle?”

Gatwick Airport Hobbled by Hobby Drone Intrusion

From 9 pm to 3 am on Wednesday evening Gatwick Airport, Europe’s 8th busiest was shut down due to the presence of two rogue drones flying over its runway.

The drones reappeared on Thursday morning, affecting the flight plans of over 120.000 passengers according to Gatwick’s chief operating officer Chris Woodroofe and forcing flights to divert to airports as far away as Paris and Amsterdam.

Flights finally resumed on Friday morning under heavy police and military guard.

Theories that the drone intrusion was a deliberate act to disrupt air traffic at a particularly stressful time – the end of year travel season – have already begun making their rounds, with British authorities launching an official investigation.

But, whatever the motives of the pilots may have been, the incident illustrated just how easy it is to bring a major air hub to its knees with a cheap, easy to purchase hobby drone.

Extremely Dangerous to Aircraft

But how can such a small device cause such big trouble?

Hobby drones are tiny but pose an enormous collision risk to aircraft which could catastrophically weaken the structural integrity of the impacted aircraft. And unlike bird strikes, drones are not composed of organic material, but of plastic, metal and potentially explosive lithium batteries – significantly raising the risks.

Thus the message of Gatwick’s CEO Stewart Wingate to stranded passengers:

“We hope passengers appreciate that we must and will always prioritise their safety over everything else…until we are confident that the issue has been resolved it would clearly not be in the interests of passengers to do so [restart operations] as we could be jeopardising their safety.”

Indeed, allowing flights to continue with the presence of rogue drones in flight paths is a risk no sensible airport authority is willing to take.

Adding to the pain of airport administrators – shutdowns are incredibly expensive – a similar incident in Dubai in 2017 ended up costing as much as $1 million US per minute.

Taxpayers Impacted

On Thursday about 20 police units were busy searching the perimeter of the airfield of the drone pilots, which to date have still not been located. All that mobilization spells big bills for taxpayers who are obliged to fund attempts – often futile – to track down drown pilots after the fact.

Even mid-priced drones, such as Parrot’s ANAFI, have maximum ranges of up to 4km or 2.5 miles – allowing a pilot to wreak havoc from a safe distance and make his getaway long before police can determine his location by sight alone.

Why not just shoot the drone out of the sky?

“Why not just break out the rifles, blow the drone out of the sky and be done with it?” you may ask. In Gatwick’s case, police were reluctant to do so out of fear that stray bullets could possibly damage aircraft or injure passengers and crew.

Drones are also incredibly fast (some going up to 225kph or 140mph) and difficult to target, even for the best sharpshooters.

Pilot Localization is Key

Lucas Le Bell, founder of CerbAir anti-drone solutions knows how dangerous a drone in a no-fly zone can be. CerbAir has extensive experience in anti-drone protection over international airports such as Paris’ Charles de Gaulle – Roissy International Airport.

“This is proof that stricter legislation is not enough to eliminate the threat hobby drones pose to aviation, even at major airports like Gatwick. If you want to stop this sort of incident, you need to find the people responsible and bring them to justice to discourage others from doing the same thing, which is why it’s so important to be able to locate the pilot.”

Radio-frequency based anti-drone detection systems like CerbAir’s are able to locate not only the drone but its remote control from the moment the remote is activated. This allows airport authorities to find and apprehend rogue drone pilots and neutralize the threat straight away without using ammunition or jamming which can be dangerous in a crowded urban environment.

Major airports around the world such take the Gatwick debacle as a warning.

Deployment of anti-drone detection, pilot localization, and drone neutralization should no longer be considered optional.

Indeed, Stewart Wingate recognized the need for action in his official statement, writing:

“These events obviously highlight a wider strategic challenge for aviation in this country which we need to address together with speed – the aviation industry, Government and all the other relevant authorities.”

In a world where one tiny drone is all it takes to ground dozens of jumbo jets, finding and making an example of irresponsible pilots is the only way forward.

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Restricting Drone Usage at the Local Level

A recent report on the efforts of the Sedona Oak Creek Airport Authority and the US Forest Service in the American state of Arizona to ban drones flying in their vicinity raised questions over the Continue reading “Restricting Drone Usage at the Local Level”