Race is on to find ways to counter
low-cost unmanned aircraft
Small, quadcopter-type unmanned
aircraft increasingly are posing a
drone menace to civil aircraft operations, as well as to sensitive public, government, and industrial sites
like sporting events, prisons, power
plants, and military bases.
These small unmanned aerial
vehicles (UAVs) can cost as little as
a thousand dollars, and are causing problems by their sheer proliferation in numbers. They get in
the way of firefighting aircraft and
can hamper law-enforcement, to
say nothing of invading the privacy of individuals. We haven’t even
touched on the potential threats of
terrorists using drones to deliver
explosives and chemical or biological agents, or conduct surveillance
of sensitive public, government, or
The problem is these drones are
small and difficult to detect until
they’re dangerously close. In June, a
hobby drone flying over a forest fire
in Southern California forced the
grounding of helicopters on scene
to fight the blaze. The threat of firefighting aircraft colliding with the
drone were too great.
Small drones also have caused
alarm for those guarding President
Obama. In August, the Secret Ser-
vice noticed a drone hovering near
the president as he played a round
of golf in South Florida.
Small drones have been sighted near commercial airports, where
they pose a collision risk with passenger jets taking off and landing. Should a loaded passenger plan
suck one of these drones into its
engines on takeoff, a disaster could
Remember US Airways flight
1549 back in 2009? An Airbus A320
piloted by Capt. Chesley B. “
Sully” Sullenberger encountered several bird strikes shortly after taking
off from New York’s LaGuardia airport, knocking out both the plane’s
engines. With skill and luck, Sullenberger was able to land the stricken passenger jet in the Hudson River with no loss of life.
A drone buzzing the departure
end of the runway at any of the
world’s large airports could cause
an incident where the crew and
passengers might not be so lucky.
The challenge is to develop the
capability to counter these small
unmanned aircraft when they fly
too close to sensitive operations.
Industry and government are starting to step up to develop technologies to detect, identify, commandeer, and even destroy trespassing
drones, if necessary.
Blighter Surveillance Systems
in Great Chesterford, England, has
demonstrated an anti-drone sys-
tem, and other companies are
working on technologies to control
drone access to sensitive or dan-
gerous areas. The Wall Street Journal
published a story last month, head-
lined “Next Step for Drones: De-
fending Against Them,” that out-
lines some of the progress that has
been made toward developing effec-
tive and affordable counter-drone
One of the technological challenges to counter-drone systems is
today’s sensitive radar technologies. Many radar systems have been
fine-tuned to filter out small targets like birds to reduce clutter and
false alarms. These filters can make
drones invisible to radar.
Still, sensor technologies have
been developed to help helicopter
pilots sense and avoid high-tension
power lines in their flight paths.
These technologies can involve radar, ladar, infrared sensors, or other
approaches to detect small targets.
A growing number of prototype
counter-drone systems should be
available within a year.
It shouldn’t be long before we see
counter-drone technologies integrated into perimeter security systems protecting sports stadiums,
nuclear power plants, airports, prisons, and military bases. Í