Out of This World Anti-Drone Technology: Lasers, UTMs, Bullets with Nets, and More
BY Zacc Dukowitz26 July 2017
Anti-drone technology has been developing as rapidly as the drone industry itself.
Back in December we wrote about the expansion in range of DroneShield’s anti-drone gun, and in the short period of time since then we’ve seen the launch of a number of new anti-drone tools.
The most impressive of these is the anti-drone laser CNN recently reported witnessing, but there are also bullets packed with compressed netting, new and improved net guns, the anti-drone drone called the SparrowHawk, and of course Unmanned Traffic Management (UTMs) systems being developed by NASA and others.
One thing to note before we dive into the details about these various devices and systems is that the term anti-drone is something of a misnomer. The goal of these tools is to control drones, not necessarily to destroy them per se (except for the laser—the laser was definitely built to destroys things).
So you don’t have to be anti-drone to want to use an anti-drone tool.
In fact, you might love flying drones and use them in your daily work, but also want to use an anti-drone tool to keep the skies safe. Take Mark Bathrick, the Director of Aviation Services for the U.S. Department of the Interior, who oversees a fleet of over 200 drones in his work, but also faces serious challenges with rogue drones obstructing wildfire operations.
Now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s take a closer look at this new tech.
The Navy’s Drone-Killing Laser
The Navy’s LaWS (Laser Weapons System) was developed by NASA, and is a fully operational laser being used for defense.
That statement alone makes it a somewhat surreal anti-drone tool. For years—for decades—we’ve heard talk about the potential to use lasers for defense.
Remember, for instance, Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars initiative, which proposed protecting the U.S. through a system of lasers that would destroy bombs before they could land? If you don’t know about it, that’s at least in part because the idea was completely impossible with the technology that existed at the time it was proposed.
But the LaWS is a real tool, and it definitely works. Check it out:
In the video above, the USS Ponce crew launched a drone to use as a test target. (Drones are increasingly being used as weapons in countries such as Iran, North Korea, China, Russia, among others.)
In an instant the drone catches fire from the invisible laser, which heats it to a temperature of thousands of degrees, sending it plummeting down to the ocean.
“We don’t worry about wind, we don’t worry about range, we don’t worry about anything else. We’re able to engage the targets at the speed of light.”
-- Lt. Cale Hughes, Naval Laser Weapons System Officer
Although this laser is being called an anti-drone device, you can already see that there are many, many more possible uses for this weapon than just dealing with drones.
Sky Net Shotgun Shells
These standard-sized shotgun shells contain compressed nets and metal weights, which are designed to catch on a drones’ rotors and arrest them mid-flight.
According to a recent Wired article in which these shells were tested, their accuracy wasn’t that great. Although the idea sounds viable, it turns out the reality is far from perfect.
These shells also come with significant risks. Shrapnel from the shells can do real harm to bystanders, and a direct hit made by accident could kill you.
These net guns were originally marketed for animal control, but have now been reimagined and remarketed as an anti-drone tool.
A plus with the net gun is that it’s a lot safer than the Sky Net shot gun shells. You’re not going to hurt anyone with these nets.
On the negative side, the range is shorter—up to 45 or 50 feet—so you’d have to be considerably closer to a rogue drone if you wanted to use the net gun to take it down.
It’s also important to not that net guns, like net bullets, don’t seem to actually work that well.
But they certainly do look cool in action. Check it out—
If you can’t afford a laser specially designed by NASA but you want something a step up from net bullets and net guns, the SparrowHawk is a good option.
The SparrowHawk also uses a net, but it’s approach for deploying the net is much more sophisticated and accurate than just shooting the net into the air.
The SparrowHawk is a DJI Matrice 600 retrofitted with a net that can be remotely controlled while the sUAS is in flight so that it can be dropped from a pole that hangs down from the drone.
The pilot console controls not only the drone, but also allows the pilot to unfurl, rotate, and drop the net. A parachute is attached to the net, so that once the rogue drone is captured it can be brought safely to the ground.
Be forewarned that the cost is actually higher than billed, since you have to buy or already own a DJI M600, which run about $5,000, in addition to the $11K you’ll spend on the SparrowHawk net system.
Unmanned Traffic Management Systems
What is a UTM?
Unmanned Traffic Management system, or UTM, is a phrase used to describe a sophisticated system that would be used to regulate and control drone air traffic. UTMs will help us stay safe as our skies get more and more heavily trafficked, and also serve to prevent rogue drones from taking down airplanes or posing other threats, like delivering bombs.
According to NASA: “the UTM system would enable safe and efficient low-altitude airspace operations by providing services such as airspace design, corridors, dynamic geofencing, severe weather and wind avoidance, congestion management, terrain avoidance, route planning and re-routing, separation management, sequencing and spacing, and contingency management.”
For several years now NASA has been working on the development of UTMs, which would ensure safe skies and pave the way for loosening Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) prohibitions. The thinking is that BVLOS will be safer with a UTM in place, since the skies will be more thoroughly regulated and controlled.
NASA first demonstrated rural operation of a UTM back in 2015, so we can only imagine that functioning UTMs from NASA will be a reality soon.
“UTM is designed to enable safe low-altitude civilian UAS operations by providing pilots information needed to maintain separation from other aircraft by reserving areas for specific routes, with consideration of restricted airspace and adverse weather conditions.”
-- Parimal Kopardekar, Manager of NASA’s UTM Project
To back that idea up, it’s important to note that back in May Gryphon Sensors released Mobile Skylight, a UTM system with drone detecting sensors, at AUVSI XPONENTIAL.
The release wasn’t widely reported, but represented a big and exciting step forward for the realization of robust systems that can be used to control and regulate drones, and make our skies safer.
And for those looking to control rogue drones on a tight budget, all you need to do is sharpen up your spear-throwing abilities.
Check out this video of a drone taken down by a knight partaking in a historical re-enactment in Central Russia to get a first-hand lesson.