The Trouble(s) with DJI’s Aeroscope

DJI is the world’s largest manufacturer of civilian drones and its products can be found in a wide variety of recreational and commercial settings. Given the ubiquity of DJI drones, their ease of use and affordability, many governments and police entities around the world now employ them in their day-to-day operations.

In October 2017, following a series of drone-related incidents, the Chinese drone giant released a drone detection and tracking system called Aeroscope designed to allow security administrators to spot errant or hostile DJI UAS in their airspace. Aeroscope has been adopted at a few major airports and is seen by some as an answer to a growing drone threat to air traffic. But, Aeroscope comes with some serious issues of its own.

Risky Investment?

Tensions have been rising between the United States and DJI’s home country of China and US officials have become increasingly fearful of Chinese-made devices potentially spying on American communications and critical infrastructure and transferring information back to China. 

In May 2019, President Trump signed an executive order allowing the US government to ban the importation or use at sensitive sites of flagged Chinese tech, declaring a “national emergency” over alleged attempts to exploit vulnerabilities in American IT and communication systems for spying purposes. Huawei’s 5G project has already been targeted for suppression by the US government and various US allies dropped the technology under American pressure. Could DJI and its products, including Aeroscope, be next?

The future looks ominous. Although the executive order singled no specific country or company out for punishment, it was widely interpreted as a swipe at China. Furthermore, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency of the US Department of Homeland Security issued an alert on May 2019 that Chinese-made drones may pose a “potential risk to an organization’s information.” The alert continued, 

The United States government has strong concerns about any technology product that takes American data into the territory of an authoritarian state that permits its intelligence services to have unfettered access to that data or otherwise abuses that access…Those concerns apply with equal force to certain Chinese-made (unmanned aircraft systems)-connected devices capable of collecting and transferring potentially revealing data about their operations and the individuals and entities operating them, as China imposes unusually stringent obligations on its citizens to support national intelligence activities.”

Once again, no particular company was singled-out, but given that DJI drones account for around 80% of the US and Canada civilian drone market and that it maintains its headquarters and servers in Shenzhen, China,  DJI is the most likely target. DJI has vigorously denied any involvement in espionage and taken steps to relocate some of its operations to North America, but among US officials a heavy cloud of suspicion hangs over the company.

If the Department of Homeland Security or President Trump decides to crack down on DJI technology, use of Aeroscope, particularly at sensitive sites in American territory such as airports, seaports or military infrastructure may become impossible. And the threat isn’t limited only to the United States. As illustrated by the case of Huawei, the American government has been known to put heavy pressure on its allies to divest themselves of technology it considers dangerous, meaning security administrators in Europe, the Americas, and Australia may be forced to throw out Aeroscope and other DJI products if they want to continue doing business with the US.

Although the threat of an American crackdown should weigh heavily on the mind of anyone thinking of integrating Aeroscope into their airspace security set up, Aeroscope presents a couple of other serious limitations that merit consideration.

CerbAir is proud to be the French leader in counter-drone solutions with proprietary technology developed in-house, within the European Union. That means there are no potential backdoors or diplomatic snags that could put your sensitive airspace, or your investment at risk.

The Other 20%

DJI drones account for about 80% of the civilian drones on the market today and its Aeroscope system is capable of picking up the vast majority of them. But what about the other 20%? In the case of a dedicated criminal or terrorist group, the solution is as simple as purchasing a non-DJI drone (of which there are dozens of models and companies to choose from) to slip through a security system and reach their target. Some adversaries, like the Syrian rebels who attacked a Russian airbase in early 2018, even build their own drones from scratch – making impossible for Aeroscope to catch.

At CerbAir, our drone detection solution detects the overwhelming majority of civilian drones on the market today (DJI and non-DJI alike), and our direction-finding feature allows a security administrator to locate the rogue drone pilot on top of his UAV. Police or security personnel can be immediately directed to the area and apprehend the offending pilot, eliminating the drone threat at its root and reducing the chances of repeated incidents. Gatwick’s nearly 3-day closure cost the airport authority and airlines nearly £17 million in lost revenue. Imagine the savings if the drone operator could have been taken out within the very first hour of the incident.

Is it worth the risk?

DJI and Aeroscope are household names and many people are attracted to the simplicity of adopting an Aeroscope anti-drone solution without really doing much research on the pros and cons. But, buyer beware. While Aeroscope is a fine product, the risks of a US crackdown on DJI and the limitations and vulnerabilities built into Aeroscope’s fabric might make it more trouble than you’ve bargained for. 

When looking for an anti-drone solution, ease of installation and use, as well as cost should all figure into your calculations. But a few other key features to consider include a CUAS solution that is:

  • Unlikely to get caught up in diplomatic struggles between superpowers,
  • Does not suffer from potential espionage and hacking risks (prefer in-house developed technology),
  • Detects nearly all drones on the market, not just one brand,

About CerbAir

CerbAir is a European leader in CUAS (anti-drone) detection and neutralization solutions. CerbAir’s DroneWatch is a combination of scalable, drone detection with our Hydra radio frequency sensor and our software powered by proprietary algorithms. Our anti-drone solutions allow security administrators to detect, characterize and neutralize* hostile drones and locate their pilots from the moment the drone remote control is switched on.

*The purchase or usage of jamming technologies only applies to public order, national defense or national security needs, or public law enforcement in accordance with local regulations.

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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