Counter-drone tech requires constant improvement, former DoD official says

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A former Pentagon official is hoping for new and diverse anti-drone developments at the Defense Department’s 2017 Black Dart counter-drone exercise, planned for May 7-19 at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida.
Black Dart 2016, held last September at Eglin, featured the Joint Multi-Platform Advanced Combat. Incorporating tools developed by U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center, JMAC uses multiple acoustic, image-processing and radar sensors to enable beyond-visual-range engagements in a crowded battle space.
Northrop Grumman last year showed off its Mobile Application for UAS Identification, a mobile acoustic sensor that operates on Android cellphones and can detect small, low-flying drones.
While these efforts show promise, there’s a desire for an even broader range of approaches this year. “You need a continuum of capabilities. You can’t work toward one type of solution and think that solution is good for a long time to come,” said Ben Riley, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense who now serves as a principal research associate at Georgia Tech Research Institute.
In particular, Riley has his eye on MESMER, a counter-drone solution in development by Columbia, Maryland-based Department 13. Rather than shoot down enemy drones, this solution seeks to hijack their operations, essentially denying the enemy control of the vehicle. (Booz Allen Hamilton recently licensed a MESMER system for use in prototype demonstrations planned for the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps.)
While it is possible to shoot down an unmanned aircraft, “it has to land somewhere, and if you can’t control where that drone goes down, bad things can happen,” Department 13 CEO Jonathan Hunter said. If the vehicle is armed with explosive or biological agents, “even worse things can happen.”
A control systems-based approach to anti-UAV operations has the advantage of not sending a loose drone crashing into civilian populations. But it’s also a complex feat of engineering to achieve control across multiple platforms, with the drone marketplace awash in makes, models and manufacturers.
It helps that nearly all drones operate in ISM band, the unlicensed radio band for commercial products. Within the band, 90 percent of commercial drones use one of about 10 common protocols for communication. “That makes things a lot easier because it allows us to focus on certain parts of the spectrum without having to cover the entire thing,” Hunter said.
The military has acknowledged that command of radio communications may play a critical role. A 2016 Army document on counter-drone strategy notes that the electromagnetic spectrum “will be more contested in the future. Adversaries will challenge the United States in these areas due to evolving technology and proliferation.”
By reverse engineering the most common protocols, MESMER’s designers say they have been able to effectively take control of a wide array of UAVs. “Drones communicate via a certain protocol, that is the language they use, so we are learning to speak that language in order to control the drone,” Hunter said.
MESMER is designed to stop a drone, but not to pilot the vehicle. That is, an operator can tap into an enemy’s systems to make an aircraft hover in place or even fly itself into the ground. But the system isn’t intended to give users turn-by-turn control over the UAV’s flight.
At last year’s MITRE challenge — a research and development effort in support of government technologies — operators showed that MESMER could stop a drone at 1.2 kilometers’ distance.
Of course, if vendors like Department 13 are coming forward with the ability to take over opposing drones via radio attack, it’s a safe bet that the enemy is working on something similar. That being the case, Riley said, military officials should probably be looking to develop a counter-counter capability.
“We need to do red teaming,” he said, referring to the practice of attacking one’s own system to detect vulnerabilities. “If I am the bad guy, how would I take over this drone? The enemy has a new capability every six months. We need to have the structures in place to counter that.”
In this sense, he suggested, MESMER’s software-based approach to disabling a UAV may give it an edge over more hardware-intensive attacks. “With a software solution, it is a lot quicker and easier to deploy,” he said. That will hold true whether the software enables a MESMER-like takeover of an enemy craft, or whether it gives U.S. forces a new means to nimbly evade such attacks in the future.