How Counter-Drone Tech Can Safeguard Critical Infrastructure

With new security issues arising from the coronavirus-related shutdown, the world continues to see a sharp increase in negative uses for drones.

Our world is continually evolving, and recent events caused by the coronavirus pandemic demonstrates how our collective dependencies are intertwined. While organizations refocus on strategies for survival and pivoting to digitalization, we already see significant use of technology to secure and penetrate organizations or entire industries.

While security integrators and dealers have been designated as “essential” workers during the COVID-19 outbreak, the situation has nonetheless hastened the need to limit exposure where and when possible. This has led to a fundamental shift into how work is conducted, with the adoption of technology reaching unprecedented levels. In terms of the drone industry, we are starting to see a significant increase in use cases, from delivery, photography and surveillance, which was prophesized by drone market analysts years ago.

The use of drones for deliveries was shown to support China’s efforts for containment, and now critical workers, including local law enforcement, are adopting drones to inspect and monitor the streets and ensure people heed the guidance to stay safe at home.

As we collectively navigate new security issues arising from the COVID-19 related shutdown, the world continues to see a sharp increase in negative uses for drones. Counter-drone technology is automated and continually monitors the airspace. Based on data from counter-drone technology installation bases, drones continue to be detected near critical facilities. This is logical as facilities are operating with limited staff and, therefore, represent a prime opportunity to take advantage. In addition, drone detection data shows increased reports of stalking, surveillance and nuisance-related events.

Whether in critical operation mode or in full force, protecting critical national infrastructure from the threats introduced by unauthorized drones is arguably one of the toughest technology and operational challenges to those engaged in counter unmanned aerial system (C-UAS) activities. In the wrong hands, commercially available drones can be used to spy on facilities and personnel, identify under-resourced areas to facilitate illegal crossings, smuggle drugs covertly and carry out attacks.

Defense organizations, as well as private organizations around the world, are extending their security programs to assess lower airspace activity and prevent the entry of unauthorized drones and the threats they may pose.

New Vulnerabilities and Risks

In order to defend against unauthorized drones, the airspace security solution must be adaptable to the adversary and environment. Whether located in cities, rural communities or offshore, traditional security at critical infrastructure is robust and designed to protect operations from a variety of threats, including terrorism, natural disasters, theft and espionage.

However, traditional security leaves a gap in the lower airspace, exposing a vulnerability in which drones can penetrate with ease. For example, environmental protesters have used drones to interrupt operations at nuclear plants. Border patrol agents are seemingly powerless against drones surveying vulnerabilities and delivering drugs. Military installations must also have a program in place to assess their lower airspace activity, gather information to hold trespassers accountable for damages caused by their intrusion.

The rise of uncooperative drones at critical infrastructure make apparent three pertinent issues:

  1. Innovation is outpacing regulation. Drones are making headlines and are becoming a national security priority. Legislators at every level of government are still working on creating regulations to prevent drones from disrupting utilities, correctional facilities, airports, critical infrastructure, stadiums and military bases.
  1. Laws won’t stop drone pilots with malicious intent. The applications for using drones are growing every day. However, not all drone pilots are aware of or will follow laws, which is why it’s up to institutions to both understand and be proactive with what is happening in their airspace.
  1. Anyone who has a security system in place must now look to the skies. Airspace security, like physical security or cybersecurity, is a critical element to all organizations seeking to protect people or assets from unwanted lower airspace incursions.

By integrating counter-drone technology into existing security systems, critical infrastructure security teams will understand when their airspace is at risk.

Integration of Counter-Drone Technology

Drone detection technology identifies the number of drones in the airspace, as well as creates a baseline of data, such as the time of day they’re flying, the types of drones flown and the flight path. This data can then be used by security to understand better where airspace vulnerabilities exist, and how to respond to unwanted drones if needed.

A sophisticated counter-drone program, featuring combinations of radio frequency, radar, acoustics, and cameras, allows organizations to gather data in a targeted area, thereby ensuring that all drones are detected. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to detecting drone threats. Every organization can use passive counter-drone detection technology, such as radio frequency sensors, to assess their airspace activity. From there, additional sensors may be added to gather a greater understanding of the airspace threat, and if needed, countermeasures can be integrated.

MultiSensor Approach to Complete Airspace Awareness

Intelligent counter-drone software can integrate radio frequency (RF), cameras, acoustic sensors, as well as radar for detection.

  • Radio Frequency (RF) sensors are the cornerstone of airspace security. They can detect commercial, consumer, and DIY or prototype drones, flight paths, and the location of drones. RF sensors are capable of identifying a drone’s type and model based on the protocol or frequency the drone is operating.RF sensors can stand alone to detect drones and can operate without other sensors. They are also passive and do not require legal authorization for use, and are compliant with FAA and FCC regulations. This means that users can operate without concern for sensor emissions, which may be critical for many mission sets where radio silence is operationally desirable or where adjacent electronic systems cannot tolerate radio interference of any kind. However, RF performance may be reduced in noisy RF environments, which is why a successful counter-drone hardware program has multiple layers to support data collection.
  • EO/IR tools can provide vital visual confirmation of a drone, help identify payloads, and record forensic evidence of drone intrusions. This sensor is important for times when human verification is necessary, or when security teams need visual evidence of an intrusion. EO/IR may be limited in scope due to weather conditions, in low visibility environments, and at nighttime. Additionally, the range is dependent on the type of hardware used, and it may be difficult to scale given existing infrastructure, integration efforts, and/or cost. The range for EO/IR can vary between a few feet away, and up to two or three hundred meters.
  • Radar provides long-range detection including the position of a drone. Radar has a very high accuracy for detecting airborne and ground movements and may be able to scan in both azimuth and elevation. If standing alone, radar systems will pick up any movement, whether it be a bird, debris, moving traffic, airplanes, or drones. Radar may not be able to differentiate between the types of objects, which is why when it comes to drone detection, it’s important to have other sensors to eliminate distractions and only focus on drone activity. 

Ultimately, a successful counter-drone program will incorporate multiple, best-of-breed sensors. Modular solutions enable security teams to customize their counter-drone technology and scale it for their particular environment and missions.

Effectors and Defeat Measures 

The most straightforward question to ask, and the hardest to answer is this: Once you are aware there is a drone in your environment, what do you want to happen? From there, it’s important to lay out what technologies and assets are available, as many defeat systems are restricted or reserved for military use only.

Defensive mitigation tactics may include dispatching security forces to confront a pilot, triggering alarms, moving civilians or sensitive materials out of the line of sight of the drone, or even shutting down parts of an operation. Offensive mitigation tactics will interrupt the drone flight. Kinetic solutions will physically interrupt the flight by either capturing the drone while mid-air or destroying it. Non-kinetic solutions, such as RF jammers, may force the drone to land, return to home, or enable another pilot to commandeer the drone and control the flight path.

Ultimately, drone technology can only be defeated by other technology, which is why many first turn to non-kinetic solutions to control the drone operations, before escalating to a more destructive strategy.

Ensure Safe & Effective Operations

Critical infrastructure sites can integrate passive drone detection technology into their ecosystem. However, when it comes to developing operating procedures when there is an imminent drone threat, there are varying degrees of legality about what can be done to mitigate the drone risk. Certain defense organizations may be able to use interception or defeat technology. In contrast, commercial organizations may need to consider passive mitigation procedures, such as shutting down facilities and working with local law enforcement.

No matter the reason for beginning a counter-drone program, defense and critical infrastructure security teams must begin with data collection and assessment through the integration of passive detection technology.

As more organizations are investing in drones for maintenance and surveillance, they must also consider the unique risks drones pose to the cyber and physical security of their operations. Sensor-based drone detection software helps monitor air traffic and differentiate between authorized and unauthorized drones. The risk of the wrong drone near a defense facility could cause significant damages to infrastructure, the environment, and public they are protecting.

Counter-drone technology can be integrated into existing security programs to provide a new layer of situational awareness. Data collected from counter-drone programs help establish a baseline of data, provide security teams an accurate description of their lower airspace activity, and with this knowledge, the opportunity to build out procedures to protect operations from costly shutdowns or damage.

When drones come to work at critical infrastructure and to support public safety, security teams must also ensure that there is an aerial protection and safety program in place.

Amit Samani is Vice President of Enterprise Sales for San Francisco-based Dedrone.

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