A Queensland company which has installed counter-drone security at a critical infrastructure site with a restricted airspace in Australia says it has detected 400 drones in just six months.
EPE uses the US-developed MESMER drone technology, which instead of using jamming techniques exploits drone protocols to identify a drone’s unique identification number and take control of the device.
EPE provides a range of security services including countering IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and chemical weapons as well as drones. Its top customers include the Australian and New Zealand Defence Forces, DFAT, the Attorney-General’s Department, as well as Australian police and emergency services.
Keith Mollison, a former bomb disposal specialist with the Australian and British military, now with EPE, said they had installed the MESMER system in the first half of 2018, after the client, which he is prohibited from naming, reported numerous drone sightings overhead.
“They had in the low tens of drones sighted over a period of time,” he said.
But because drones were “very small” and “fast-moving,” making them “difficult to spot by the naked eye” the actual number was far greater, he said.
“Our system has been in operation for just over six months now and it has detected well over 400 individual drones in that time. It was a surprise to the client and to us just how many there were, so the order of magnitude of the problem is quite significant,” Mr Mollison said.
While the MESMER system can disable drones by either landing them or returning to sender, the law currently only allows for the drones to be detected and identified but not downed, unless special powers have been granted by state or federal governments for one-off events or designated areas.
“The current customer has legal approval to detect and identify, to scope the problem but the laws and the regulations haven’t caught up yet for several customers to allow them to mitigate,” he said.
This has allowed the identity and motive of the drone operators to remain undetected, although Mr Mollison said in most cases, they were more likely to have been flown into the restricted airspace by accident rather than maliciously.
“In the vast majority of cases those individual drones appear once and they tend not to appear again, so it’s very possible that it’s transient visitors, tourists.
“It could be malicious – they’re doing it for kicks, they’re doing it for laughs, they’re doing it because they want to.”
But he said without knowing, the threat remained.
“The threat to the client still exists and the threat to other infrastructure and to public events – it’s still there. The problem with effective counter-drone capabilities is not the technology, it’s the current regulations and the laws.”
Mr Mollison said Australia could easily have a Gatwick-style incident, where drones flown deliberately near Britain’s second busiest airport caused a 36-hour shutdown and chaos for more than 100,000 passengers before Christmas.
He said the MESMER system could have disabled the drones had it been installed.
“If our system had been installed in Gatwick we would have been able to detect and identify any drones that were in the area and if authority had been given mitigate those drones and bring them down safely to earth [but] that’s a very big hypothetical.”
The British military has been deployed twice to London airports following drone sightings with the most recent incident at Heathrow.
Australia’s Civil and Aviation Authority will begin a drone registration scheme later this year.