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A new industry: countering unwanted drones

A boom in consumer drone sales has spawned a counter-industry of startups aiming to stop drones flying where they shouldn't, by disabling them or knocking them out of the sky. Dozens of startup firms are involved.

Counter-drone technologies range from deploying birds of prey to firing nets from a bazooka and using signals jamming.

This serves to disable, capture, or redirect unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that are being used to smuggle drugs, drop bombs, spy behind enemy lines, spy on celebrities, or buzz public spaces. The drone/counter-drone arms race is fed in part by the slow pace of government regulation of drones.

The global consumer drone market is expected to be worth $5 billion (4.79 billion euros) by 2021, according to market researcher Tractica. The average drone in the United States will cost more than $500 and packs a range of features, from high-definition cameras to built-in GPS, predicts NPD Group, a consultancy.

Regulatory efforts remain a patchwork, and so far, regulations on drone use have been liberal in most jurisdictions, if they exist at all. Australian authorities relaxed drone regulations in September, allowing anyone to fly drones weighing up to 2kg without training, insurance, registration or certification.

Elsewhere, millions of consumers can fly high-end devices - and so can drug traffickers, criminal gangs and insurgents.

Drone users include smugglers, spies and killers

Drones have been used to smuggle mobile phones, drugs and weapons into prisons, in one case triggering a riot. One US prison governor has converted a bookshelf into an impromptu display of drones his officers have confiscated.

Armed groups in Iraq, Ukraine, Syria and Turkey are increasingly using off-the-shelf drones for reconnaissance or as improvised explosive devices, says Nic Jenzen-Jones, director of Armament Research Services, a consultancy on weapons. A booby-trapped drone launched by Islamic State militants killed two Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and wounded two French soldiers in October near Mosul.

The use of drones by such groups is likely to spread, says Jenzen-Jones. "There's an understanding that the threat can migrate beyond existing conflict zones," he told Reuters.

USA weaponized combat drone X-47B (Reuters)

A weaponized combat drone, model X-47B, getting prepared for launch from the deck of the USS George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier, on the Atlantic Ocean off Norfolk, Virginia

Governments also are increasing their use of drones in conflict zones - and not just the big birds used by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) or armed forces to blow up suspected insurgents or terrorists in countries like Afghanistan.

Anti-drone technology startups

There is increasing demand for advanced technology to bring down or disable unwanted drones. At one end of the scale, the Dutch national police recently bought several birds of prey from a startup called Guard From Above to pluck unwanted drones from the sky, its CEO and founder Sjoerd Hoogendoorn said in an email.

Other approaches focus on netting drones, either via bigger drones or by guns firing a net and a parachute via compressed gas. Some, like Germany's DeDrone, take a less intrusive approach by using a combination of sensors - camera, acoustic, Wi-Fi signal detectors and radio frequency (RF) scanners - to passively monitor drones within designated areas.

Newer startups, however, are focusing on cracking the radio wireless protocols used to control a drone's direction and payload to then take it over and block its video transmission. Singapore's TeleRadio Engineering uses RF signals in its SkyDroner device to track and control drones and a video feed to confirm targets visually.

Regulators need a wake-up call

The problem, such companies say, is that regulations on the use of drones - and about countering them - are still in their infancy. In countries like the United States and Australia, for example, drones are considered private property, and they can only be jammed by government agencies.

Taxidermic Cat Drone (picture alliance/dpa/A. D. Valle)

A deceased cat, expertly prepared by a taxidermist, was mounted on a drone and flown in the courtyard of the Natural History Museum in Bern, Switzerland

"Mitigation capabilities," says Jonathan Hunter, CEO of Department 13, "are therefore limited."

Oleg Vornik, chief financial officer of DroneShield, however, says: "This is expected to change shortly as governments start to recognise that critical infrastructure facilities such as airports need to be able to defend themselves against drones." In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration is testing various counter-drone technologies at several airports.

In Canada, the transportation ministry launched an online hotline in December to report bad drone pilots. The new "incident-reporting tool" is meant to keep Canadians "safe from reckless drone use," according to Transport Canada.

German regulators are worried about proliferating drones causing hazards, for example around airports.

Interest in the space will only grow. London will next year host the world's first two conferences on counter-drone technologies, says Jenzen-Jones. But there will also likely be consolidation. DroneShield's Vornik says the company has counted 100 counter-drone startups, and is talking to more than a dozen of them as potential acquisition targets.

nz/hg (Reuters, AFP)

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