What to Know About Countering Drones

When considering the threat of drones, make sure you know these important factors when developing a security plan for a sensitive venue or major event.

Drones are becoming ubiquitous. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has said it registered 1.2 million drones as of mid-May. That includes more than 950,000 operated by hobbyists and 255,000 by commercial and public entities as of Aug. 31.

They range in size from as small 250 grams to 55 pounds, and are increasingly being used for more and more complex tasks.

But just because drones are seemingly everywhere doesn’t mean they should be — or even are allowed to be. There are times and places where operating a drone violates the law, personal privacy or — if nothing else — common sense.

Unfortunately, as the early August drone attack on Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro showed, the prospect of using drones as weapons — long part of global military arsenals — is now a reality away from the battlefield. The plot reportedly used two drones packed with explosives to attack Maduro while he was giving a speech during a military parade.

If a similar event happens here, few organization outside of the military have the legal authority to take out a drone. But that is changing — recent legislation passed by Congress instructs relevant agencies, including the FAA, Department of Justice (DOJ) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to begin developing rules for testing and deploying drone countermeasures.

So where does this leave security specialists? In a state of flux, for sure. It’s clear that anybody developing a security plan for a sensitive venue or major event must consider the threat of drones. But what, exactly, should be considered today, and how might this change?

The first step is to determine the legal boundaries for taking action. A drone is an aircraft according to federal law, and that’s a big deal. It also makes the odds low that the law will permit interference, although as noted this is changing.

There are some circumstances that present the authority to act. In those cases, the next step should be evaluating whether the technology planned for use is allowed by the law. Here again, the odds are low — at least today.

This will change, and when it does, the counter-drone industry will not be starting from square one. The military provides insightful guidance on where drone-countermeasure technology will go, and the strategies that security specialists will follow to implement it.

They fall into five basic categories: perimeter protection, kinetic weapons, electronic jamming, denial/spoofing of GPS signals, and stealth coatings to mask critical infrastructure from drone sensors.

Be Mindful of Perimeter Protection

One of the simplest and cheapest strategies available, perimeter protection, is also the most overlooked. That’s because most people don’t take the time to understand drones and exploit their vulnerabilities.

By understanding how drones work, it is possible to identify the locations around infrastructure from where they are most likely to be operated. These areas can then be monitored both as a deterrent and active countermeasure, using active patrols or passive video surveillance monitoring.

A drone operator will want to launch aircraft from a location that both maximizes battery life and aircraft’s radio link. Weight and distance are the two mortal enemies of battery life. As the weight of an aircraft increases, power usage exponentially increases, and range exponentially decreases.

As distance required to fly increases, the weight a drone can carry exponentially decreases. Simply put, denying close-in locations exponentially causes more problems for all drone operators. There’s some math involved, but given factors such as type of threat and the venue’s specifics, detailed maps of probable launch locations can be drawn.

These become the areas that need monitoring, which is half the equation. The other half involves exploiting the need for a drone operator to remain in contact with his aircraft in to steer the device through onboard camera systems via a command link.

Depending on the radio frequency, these links have various ranges but all share the same vulnerability: they need a clear line of sight between the operator and the drone. Buildings, trees, hills, foliage and a host of other structures all interfere with a drone’s life-line — its command-and-control signal.

In the most simplified form, terrain maps and a bit more math can help identify areas where there is a clear line of sight to the parts of a facility that need protecting. This can be reversed-engineered to identify likely launch points.

This information combined with factors such as battery life and drone performance create several important datasets that can be developed into robust maps integrated into perimeter protection plans.

A good site survey combined with an evaluation of vulnerabilities can result in a plan for patrolling and monitoring the most likely drone-operator site around a facility. This approach is not only effective and educational for subsequent planning, it’s also far more inexpensive than many other counter-drone technologies.

Ken Dunlap is the Founder and Managing Partner of Catalyst-Go.

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