Building a ‘silver bullet’ solution to counter rogue drones

Waleid Al Mesmari, Senior Vice President – Electronic Warfare & Cyber Technologies, EDGE

Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) are among the major advancing technologies that facilitate many useful and legitimate applications, yet they also pose an ever-evolving, multifaceted threat to civilian and military infrastructure, assets, and people. UAS, commonly called drones, have proliferated rapidly and are widely available to nation states, non-state actors, and individuals. Propelled by incidents of security breaches and the use of drones by terrorist groups, the market for end-to-end counter-UAS (C-UAS) solutions is certainly booming.

Reflected in a recent report by Research and Markets, investment in research, development, and procurement of C-UAS solutions is rising globally, with the market size expected to reach $6.5 billion by 2031. Nevertheless, industry providers and military personnel agree that there is no single solution to manage the widespread drone threat – only a combination of systems and technologies will provide a fit-for-purpose solution.

From a defence perspective, militaries are adopting C-UAS to protect personnel, bases, naval vessels, convoys, and ground units. In civilian environments, counter-drone technology is primarily used for securing the airspace around critical infrastructure, sensitive facilities, large events, as well as for protecting VIPs and countering airborne smuggling at prisons. Multiple drone sightings at Gatwick Airport in 2018 resulted in major disruption – grounding flights for more than 36 hours, stranding hundreds of thousands of passengers during the peak holiday period, and costing airlines an estimated $60 million in losses. Closing an airport for any length of time has far-reaching consequences, and this fact is not lost on most major C-UAS players – hence the race to build a turnkey solution that mitigates risks to these vulnerable areas.

In any context, countering a drone is a complex multi-step process involving interaction and interoperability between several systems. To successfully deploy the most effective protection against rogue UAS today and in the future operating environment, the following critical capabilities must be considered:

Soft and hard kill countermeasures

Current and future C-UAS systems must be flexible in incorporating both hard kill (kinetic) and soft kill (non-kinetic) countermeasures. While the solution must employ an impressive variety of detection and interception techniques, relying on 3D radars, radio frequency (RF) monitoring, electro-optical (EO) cameras, and infrared (IR) sensors, soft and hard kill components are required to neutralise or physically destroy hostile drones in certain circumstances.

Soft-kill methods of interdiction include radio-link jamming, GPS jamming, spoofing, and cyber takeover measures. A C-UAS solution implemented to secure critical infrastructure in a largely-populated city will incorporate more sophisticated soft kill measures as opposed to hard kill components to limit collateral damage to property and civilians.

Hard-kill capabilities such as high-energy lasers, missiles and guns should also be available based on the level of threat as well as the customer’s targeted operating environment.

Leveraging existing solutions

Drone technology is developing at a markedly fast pace, thereby creating an enormous challenge for current C-UAS solutions to keep up with the accelerated advancement of countermeasures. New systems are becoming more sophisticated, integrating different technologies, and adopting innovative trends such as machine learning, sensor fusion, and cognitive radars.

However, it is equally as important to leverage existing mission-proven technologies to provide an immediate solution for the urgent operational needs of military and commercial stakeholders around the world. 

Through open and common electronic architectures, the rapid integration of hardware and software upgrades will ensure that the system can be efficiently augmented when new technologies come along, providing the flexibility required to respond to new challenges.

Modular and interoperable solutions

C-UAS needs seamless integration across multiple domains. Given the multi-layered threat environment, the response cannot be based on single solutions in any given scenario. The modern C-UAS solution should encompass a layered system of systems approach, benefiting from modular open systems architecture.

When it comes to a complete C-UAS solution, interoperability between the various systems is crucial to success, allowing multiple configurations and a rapid response to operational requirements in different theatres of engagement or conflict.

Advanced autonomy

One does not have to look far to see how artificial intelligence (AI) is transforming the international security environment. It promises to learn the behaviour of UAS in real-time, accumulating vast amounts of data that will minimise human intervention and strengthen response tactics. AI and machine learning help streamline decision-making processes and ensure short time reaction – two highly valuable attributes when making sense of an overwhelming volume of data or activating effectors in a matter of seconds.

The threat of drone technology in the wrong hands will continue to pose a significant threat to governments, corporations and the public. Only the development and deployment of multi-layered, flexible and technologically-advanced C-UAS solutions will provide the required levels of protection to rise to the challenge and eliminate the threat.

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