SecurityInfoWatch.com: A new way forward in drone mitigation
One of the security industry’s emerging product categories in recent years has been that of drone detection and mitigation solutions. The easing of restrictions on commercial and consumer unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) combined with falling prices have paved the way for a future in which the skies over every major American city could be inundated with drones flying to and fro performing various tasks. Of course, one of the major concerns that security practitioners in both the public and private sectors have is that of drones potentially being leveraged by bad actors for nefarious purposes.
There have already been numerous reports of drones entering restricted areas, such as airports and nuclear power plants, raising concerns that they could trigger a plane crash or potentially deliver an explosive payload that sparks a nuclear meltdown. Some have also expressed fears that drones could be weaponized by terrorists to kill and injure civilian populations in the West as the capabilities for carrying out such an attack have already been proven on the battlefields of the Middle East. All of these factors have combined to raise awareness about the dangers posed by UAVs, and subsequently, interest in acquiring drone mitigation technology.
Most of the solutions on the market use either acoustic sensing or radar-based devices to detect drones in flight and some even offer a variety of methodologies, typically signal jamming, to be able to force a UAV to land or return to its point of origin. However, there is still a proverbial minefield of legal issues when it comes to jamming or taking down a drone and as such, it’s a capability that’s primarily reserved for the military and a few select government entities.
One company that is offering a different approach to drone detection and mitigation is Department 13 with its MESMER platform, which uses protocol manipulation to safely stop, redirect or land a UAV. The company is headed up by Chairman and CEO Jonathan Hunter, a former U.S. Army Explosive Ordinance Officer who was deployed multiple times to Afghanistan.
“What makes us unique, in my opinion, is we’re a software-based solution that covers all four bands of the threat – 2.4 GHz, 5.8 GHz, 915 MHz, and 433 MHz – and that’s where you’re seeing commercial drones operate, so we cover all of those,” Hunter explains. “Being software-based, we can also be ported through other hardware platforms and we can do a backpack version, a mobile version and a fixed site location version and I don’t have to make the hardware per se, I can leverage other peoples’ hardware. The most important thing is that protocol manipulation is the only way I’ve seen where you can control the outcome of the event. I can put the drone in a meter circle from 700 hundred yards away.”
Hunter says the MESMER technology was borne out of the work he and others did in developing counter IED (improvised explosive device) solutions using radio communication protocols. Hunter says he’s seen military technology making its way into the commercial space for some time and that when he was contacted by the FBI several years ago to advise on various bombing trends, he warned that they should be aware of people using the industrial, scientific and medical (ISM) radio band on non-licensed RF products.
The Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 proved to be a game-changer when it came to the types of threats posed by this technology, according to Hunter, as the switch that the bombers used leveraged a proprietary protocol on the ISM band that was commonly found in radio controlled toys and drones.
“Everything we had been saying now appeared before everybody. Within two weeks we had a contract to do research for the ISM band and in doing that research we validated our assumptions that you can affect a radio protocol,” Hunter says. “We did it with laptop computers using Wi-Fi cards and code/software. We showed them how we could control the engagement with the drone by using non-jamming techniques.”
Launched just this past January, the MESMER platform has already garnered significant interest from a variety of end-users and the company has also attained an EAR99 classification from the Department of Commerce which enables the company to sell to both commercial and government clients. Hunter says that MESMER, which costs between $275,000 to $400,000 to implement, is also more competitively priced than many of the other solutions on the market.
“We believe the U.S. market is primed for an alternative to the larger, big kit items because the price points just don’t match up with the use cases,” Hunter says. “You’re not going to put a $4 million counter drone system on every single nuclear plant or maybe you are, but that is a lot of money. You’re certainly not going to do it at every airport and so when you look at alternatives, we believe we fit in the right place at the right time.”
While the drone detection and mitigation space is still relatively new and continuing to see a number of new entrants, Hunter believes there will be a 50 percent reduction in the number companies competing in the space over the next couple of years as he says the market is simply not big enough to sustain all of them.
“I would say you’re going to see a lot of the smaller companies in the market either license their product or offering to someone else who already has traction in the space or may need it or they will just go away completely,” he says. “You really have to look at your ability to play in the commercial marketplace as well, which is where I think a lot of people are missing the opportunity because they’ve chosen to do jamming and they will be able to serve some customers on the military and government side but they won’t be able to do commercial deployments.”