What to do about the rise of the drone quadcopter
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The defence and security implications of the rise of quadcopter ‘drones’ have been a source of debate on Think Defence for a couple of years now; cheap and commercially available unmanned systems are proliferating, the market is booming, innovation and new ideas a constant and ease of use and overall capabilities improving at a rapid pace. The legal, regulatory and licencing frameworks in all countries have been slow to adapt and inevitably there is something of the Wild West feel to the unmanned quadcopter market, accepting that the general term includes all multi rotor unmanned vehicles, hexacopters and octocopters for example.
It is not all bad news, far from it, this technology is on the rise for a good reason, there are commercial imperatives for it to do so beyond the hobbyist market. Remote inspection of chimneys, offshore wind turbines and power lines are just three examples of use in the aerial inspection market, a market that is being revolutionised by these systems. Geographic survey, mapping, farming, pipeline management, wildlife research, wilderness medicine, emergency response and cinematography are other industries benefiting enormously.
But for all their benefits, one thing is certain though, the defence and security implications cannot be ignored or wished away.
It is convenient to split issues along the lines of defence and security. Defence, characterised by battlefield operations and Security, generally more in line with the policing and intelligence domains. That there are confusing and fuzzy lines between the two is an indicator of just how challenging the subject is to define.
Inevitably, there have been a number of security related incidents such as the well publicised Angela Merkel political rally, White House lawn and French nuclear sites stories.
There are many more, videos of people using them at the end of commercial airport runways have emerged resulting in fears about accidental and fatal collisions, they have been used to spy on people in high rise accommodation or merely sunbathing in their back gardens and for those regimes with a more relaxed view of police brutality and riot control, they are a nightmare. Google may well obscure their mapping and satellite imagery of sensitive sites but if an £800 unmanned system can shoot geo-referenced 1080p HD digital video and 20mp still imagery of the same site in 15 minutes, those protections are simply irrelevant. In the same way that smartphones and social media have had such a significant impact, the multi rotor camera may have the same.
It doesn’t stop at gathering sensitive information or being a source of accidents, criminals have used them for delivering drugs across borders and contraband into prisons. Some manufacturers have started to look at arming these relatively low cost systems. The South African company Desert Wolf is offering an 8 prop unit that is equipped with 4 paint ball barrels and a hopper containing 4,000 pepper balls for riot control. It can also carry strobe lights and eye safe lasers. In the USA, a company called Chaotic Moon has developed one that can carry a Taser.
Water balloons aren’t a threat to anyone but imagine if the water balloon was a bag of flour (i.e. a white powder) and instead of an American messing about in his back yard it was in the UK, at the Trooping of the Colour or FA Cup Final.
Substitute flour for anthrax and the potential is both chilling, and obvious.
For unconventional and poorly resources military forces they provide a low cost entry into the unmanned world.
The conflict in Ukraine is worthy of a second look. The Peoples Project is a fascinating mix of fundraising and practical ‘people power’. The Aerorozvidka (air reconnaissance) project have created a grass roots unmanned system provisioning and operations capability and they have made extensive use of octocopter designs and a modified version of the widely available DJI Phantom.
From a defence perspective their obvious use is the age old technique of climbing a hill and looking beyond, intelligence gathering, exactly the same as dedicated military unmanned systems, at least the smaller ones. What makes them such a threat however, has nothing to do with their capabilities, or lack thereof, it is their potential for ubiquity driven by their mass market driven low cost.
Sophisticated military unmanned systems are expensive and it is this that puts them out of reach of many of our potential enemies but when those potential enemies can buy one from Amazon for hundreds of dollars then the specification difference between proper military systems and remote control toys becomes of decreasing relevance, their very lack of sophistication and low cost becomes the problem because it will drive us to counter with increasingly expensive measures.
As with the security domain, weaponising them is not difficult to foresee. They are never going to carry a 250kg Paveway IV laser guided bomb but so what, that’s not the point. Current designs are scoped around carrying a video or still camera and the means to transmit to a control station, roughly the same weight as a hand grenade. With a bit of imagination one could see an enterprising and imaginative enemy using 50 of these, each carrying an explosive and bag of nails to simply fly to a pre-programmed pattern above a military airfield and destroy a handful of very expensive but very fragile Typhoon’s or F35’s. Impossible you say, except the software is freely available online that enables swarming behaviour and formation flying, not remotely piloted. The enemy would not need 50 pilots as each would formate against a pre-arranged pattern to maximise fragmentation coverage and all it would take is a large commercial van to carry them.
In effect, they could deliver the same effect as a cluster bomb.
This subject is interesting because of the relative economic exchange rates, buy a hundred, arm them with a grenade instead of water balloon, pre-programme to fly over a military airfield and drop their grenades in a pattern to maximise fragmentation coverage and you have a very effective means of putting very expensive combat aircraft and helicopters out of action, maybe not permanently but certainly good enough to do a denial job.
Like the security domain, the military threat is twofold, their use in intelligence gathering today and potential for weaponisation tomorrow.
But they are remote control toys, aren’t they?
Yes and no, there are simple remote control toys on the market but there are also extremely sophisticated systems available.
Autonomous Flight Control and Navigation; Many systems are available with mission planning software that allows the operator to pre-programme flight paths and waypoints to reduce workload and reliance on skilled operators. Many of these are open source, available on software repositories and ‘app stores’.
Non GPS Positioning; For use in areas where availability or visibility of a GPS signal may be in doubt, underneath a bridge or in the shadow of a large building for example, precise positioning will be a problem. Inertial positioning is one option but for other locations GPS can be augmented with Differential GPS that makes use of publicly available beacons (Trinity House in the UK for example) or using a system like Local Positioning System (LPS) from Novadem.
Sensors; High definition day/night sensors are a given but thermal imaging, LIDAR and Multi Spectral Sensors are also available to commercial users. Some have integrated water sampling equipment that takes GPS referenced sample in support of water quality monitoring and pollution control, the platform either lands on the water or hovers above it. Planning software can generate a flightpath to ensure optimal coverage for a given area and there are even applications that allow the platform to follow a person or vehicle, keeping them centred in the imaging sensors field of view.
UAV Vision can provide a gimballed EO/IR sensor weighing less than 700g that can stream EO at a resolution of 720×576 and IR at 640×480. Like all responsible vendors they won’t sell to just anyone but this is still commercial technology.
Multi Platform Control; Common control stations and those that can be used to control multiple platforms are available, and how about a smartwatch control system!
Longer Ranges; Control systems typically require line of sight and this naturally reduces utility, waypoint navigation can be used and payload systems are exploring alternatives to GPS and WiFi.
Endurance; The real Achilles heal of these consumer/prosumer types is their endurance, typically, 20-30 minutes, which of course makes them useless for persistent ISTAR but then again, the ultra expensive PD-100 Black Hornet nano UAV from Prox Dynamics and Marlborough Communications that is in service with the British Army only has a flight time of 20-25 minutes. Military systems have been developed that utilise fuel cells but the civilian market has been slower to catch up. EnergyOr Technologies in Canada has a PEM fuel cell system that has demonstrated a 2 hours plus endurance for a multi-rotor aircraft.
Larger systems can carry larger payloads and batteries, 10kg and 1 hour endurance for example.
Obstacle Avoidance; This is one of the main focus areas of current research for obvious reasons, either for low speed or high speed operations. Laser, ultrasonic and even synthetic vision using a Microsoft Kinect sensor have all been implemented with the objective of allowing them to fly in close formation, inside buildings and urban areas. These videos show system using onboard obstacle avoidance, human operators are not making the decisions.
Although most focus is on quad, hex and octo rotary designs there are also some very interesting fixed wing designs that deliver much greater endurance and the ability to cover larger areas. Krossblade Aerospace will even sell you a VSTOL system, the Skyprowler
There are 4 ways of dealing with them; physical, electronic, legal and software.
First, legal counters may be the most effective counter to security challenges. Mandatory firmware updates to implement NOTAM’s have been used to protect areas of Washington. Geo fencing areas in mandatory software updates will be an effective means of protecting critical locations for the law abiding. The ability to create no fly zones over your own home, for example, using a simple online mapping tool is also an increasingly likely industry response to privacy and safety concerns.
The legal and regulatory position will take some time to adjust and stabilise but current activity is a good indicator of a maturing industry.
The Dutch seem to be on the ball; the Ministry of Security and Justice, Dutch National Police and the Royal Netherlands Marechaussee (military police) have initiated a number of projects to investigate means of detecting, classifying and neutralising small unmanned ‘drone’ style systems. Read more here and although the project has a modest budget of 1.75m Euros it has attracted a great deal of interest. Less focussed on the military context, the project is looking at drone incursion into controlled airspace like airports and critical national infrastcture, smuggling in prisons, ‘snooping’ and crimes against the person. More recently, France has initiated a similar project, no doubt in response to the nuclear site overflights that were so widely publicised. The US Secret Service and Department of Homeland Security is conducting field trials of counter ‘drone’ technology in Washington.
Physical disruption can mean many things, simply shooting them out of the sky with a shotgun or automatic weapon is the obvious choice but this method has complications in built up areas and against a rapidly maneuvering vehicle will be very difficult. One of the Dutch project participants, Delft Dynamics, has developed a concept called Project Drone Catcher that uses another quadcopter to fire a grappling net at the target machine. The net can be tethered to the launch device which allows both to descend under control. Using one drone to destroy another with an intentional collision has also been demonstrated. In a more military context they could be shot down with anything from a missile (a rather expensive hobby) to an air-bursting cannon shell like those reportedly being developed for the 40mm CTA weapon that will arm SV Scout and Warrior (whether their fire control systems or elevation and slewing limits and speeds will be able to cope in another matter) and maybe in the future a laser weapons. In a maritime context a Phalanx or manually aimed minigun could be used with the same caveats about tracking and behind target effects. Where ships would be most vulnerable are likely to be in areas and settings where having a Phalanx let rip is likely to cause all sorts of issues. Most of the physical counters must be considered against environments, local operating limits and cost.
Most systems tend to use commercial communications technology for control, navigation and sensor feeds, commonly 3G/GSM, WiFi and Bluetooth. Attacking these with jamming technology may interfere with any or all of its communication and control functionality but active jamming has range limitations and of means powerful emitters can be detected and exploited by other enemy weapon systems, baiting units or vehicles to employ active EM systems with the use of cheap drones and then using those very same emitters as a homing source is a possible counter countermeasure. Powerful omnidirectional jamming may also interfere with friendly systems as well.
In Ukraine, Russian forces/rebels have reportedly jammed the OSCE Monitoring Mission Schiebel Camcopters, disrupting GPS. No hard evidence exists for which type of equipment was used but odds on favourite is either the Rtut-BM (Mercury) or Krasuha-4 systems, both from Kret, all speculation of course.
Virus injection via WiFi, Bluetooth or 3G/GSM is another avenue that might yield cost effective results.
Another method, and one that has been used in the conflict in Ukraine, is to appreciate that the aircraft themselves are not high value but their operator are. Russian backed forces have reportedly avoided shooting them down directly but tracked their launch and recovery points and applied another old tactic, counter battery artillery fire. The operators quickly learned to relocate immediately upon launching and recover to locations for pickup later, tactics and counter tactics.
A complex problem, the operational context will influence potential solutions but whilst the Dutch, French, Australians and Americans have active research programmes and the Russians, self evidently a practical (if blunt) counter, I wonder if there are parallel programmes here in Blighty beyond individual research projects like Project BRISTOW and detection equipment studies like those from Plextec
Lets hope so.
More to the point, are the RAF, RN and Army alive to the threats born of the proliferation of sub $1000 drones and how they might be exploited by potential enemies for both surveillance, targeting and offensive operations against ground formations, ships near the coast and in harbour and airfields, home and away?
Lets hope so.
Overall, I think the point I would make is they are not a killer death ray, impossible to counter, but they are not toys either, and sensible countermeasures starts with that recognition.