By Mark Gibbs
Call them whatever you prefer—"unmanned aircraft systems" (UAS), "small unmanned aircraft systems" (sUAS), "unmanned aircraft vehicles" (UAV), or simply "drones"—these devices have evolved rapidly over the last few years to the point where they count as a significant force in the innovation of industries ranging from photography and film making, through farming and surveying, to maintenance and power line inspection. The flight times of drones have improved remarkably from a few minutes in the early days to over three hours today and they've graduated from being really tricky to fly to flying not only autonomously (programmed routes) but also intelligently (real time obstacle avoidance). To recycle an old joke, if cars had evolved at the same rate as drones, a Rolls Royce would cost $10, go a thousand miles an hour, and drive from Los Angeles to New York on a teaspoon of gas.
"So," you might be thinking "that's all very cool but what's that got to do with my company and security?" Well, just consider the following:
- Drones have been frequently used over at least the last five years to smuggle mobile phones, drugs, and porn into federal prisons. The percentage not detected is unknown but probably significant. According to USA Today: "an inmate at the high-security federal prison in Victorville, Calif., recruited someone to use a drone to smuggle in two cell phones in March 2015. Jail officials didn't discover the transfer of illegal goods for five months."
- In February, a Utah couple (a mother of six and her boyfriend) was charged with voyeurism using a drone. The drone was found in a car lot and after viewing the onboard recordings, which included video of the pilot, the police posted an invitation on Facebook for the drone owners to turn themselves in.
The police have a sense of humor. Sort of.
- A couple of weeks ago, an amateur drone pilot landed a hobbyist sUAS on the deck of Britain's new aircraft carrier, the Queen Elizabeth. Nobody noticed until the pilot made his flight videos and details public.
- The Tikad—billed as "The Future Soldier"—manufactured by Duke Robotics and currently being crowdfunded, is "a high-powered drone capable of carrying various light weapons payloads, with pinpoint targeting and shooting accuracy" which is another way of saying they've strapped guns to these devices (the thing hanging underneath the drone in the photo above is a machine pistol) and they work really well if you're trying to kill people. (For a rather less techie demonstration but effectively demonstrating what even a chewing gum and duct tape lash-up can do to weaponize a drone, see Roman Candle Attack Drone 2.0.)
So, how does this potentially impact your business? Well, consider that if some muppet with a consumer drone can land, undetected, on a British warship and take a load of photos, then what could a skilled pilot with a high performance drone do? Spy on your business operations? Place surveillance gear around, on, and in your premises? How would you even know a drone was in your vicinity? How would you know if it was on or in your business? And before you say that the physical threat from drones would be minimal because most drones are currently limited to carrying payloads of a couple of pounds at most, consider this detonation of 1.5 pounds of the explosive called C4:
But a drone doesn't have to use explosives to cause trouble. How about just causing small-scale damage with a drone? Perhaps just a making a hole in a pipe or cutting a cable or closing a valve that should be open or vice versa. Any of these events could have serious or even lethal consequences.
I talked with Jim Boyce, Head of Airspace Security at FTG Security, a communications and security company in Quincy, Mass., who said that despite a high level of awareness of the potential threat from drones in some industries—notably infrastructure organizations (for example, the power grid and nuclear reactors), airports, and the government—very little has actually been done.
FTG is a reseller of Drone Labs' Drone Detector, which detects drones by listening for their audio and radio frequency signatures with radar, visual, and thermal (infrared) detection promised for the near future. So what's the cost of an effective and sophisticated drone detection system such as Drone Detector? Jim tells me you're looking at $15,000 to $20,000 and while that might sound a bit pricey, if you are, for example, shooting a movie and would rather not have the tabloids leak pictures of the sets, or you're developing a new product such as a car, or you're doing anything that's valuable and needs to be kept private, or where there's a risk of terrorism, drone detection systems start to look inexpensive.
But wait! There's more: When you've got a drone detection system in place, you'll need a drone takedown system to make it useful. Today, the options for defeating drones include:
- Literally shooting drones out of the sky with projectile weapons such as shotguns and beanbag guns—these are highly risky for bystanders in almost every scenario.
- Systems that shoot nets at drones such as Openworks' SkyWall—potentially as risky as projectile weapons to bystanders.
- Radio and GPS jammers—the FCC only allows these devices to be sold to federal agencies so state governments and local law enforcement are out of luck.
- Powerful lasers to fry drones in flight—these systems are really the province of the military and not exactly cheap; you won't be getting your hands on these any time soon.
- Large quadcopters with nets to capture other drones, probably one of the more accessible business options.
- Finally—and I'm not making this up—the French and the Dutch are using eagles to takedown drones in flight which is incredibly cool.
It's early days for any organization let alone the average small to medium business to adopt drone detection systems and counter measures so while there's a degree of appreciation of the issues and risks, as Jim points out, it's unlikely much will happen about implementing anti-drone defenses until there's loss of life or some other tragedy. The question is where will your organization be when drone defenses are seen to be as necessary as burglar alarms and keycard entry controls? And, most importantly, will you be using eagles?
About Mark Gibbs
Mark is the author of four best-selling computer networking book titles and was a syndicated journalist and columnist for 24 years writing for Network World, Computer World, and other IDG publications.