The counter-drone conundrum

Jan. 15, 2019
As more UAVs take to the skies, experts say the ability of law enforcement and security to mitigate the risks they pose is hampered

For years, security experts have warned about the myriad threats presented by consumer-grade unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly referred to as drones. Aside from UAVs being used to carry out physical attacks on crowds of innocent civilians or against targeted individuals ­– a capability demonstrated in last year’s assassination attempt against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro – perhaps the greatest threat posed by the drones is the potential for collisions with commercial aircraft.

But while pilots in the U.S. and elsewhere have reported drone sightings around airports for some time now, very few, if any of these incidents resulted in significant disruption of air traffic or caused damage to aircraft. However, all of that changed in the space of several weeks last month when what is believed to be a drone collided with an Aeromexico jetliner near the U.S.-Mexico border in early December and multiple drones spotted flying over Britain’s Gatwick Airport just before Christmas forced the delay or cancellation of numerous flights over the span of several days.

Unfortunately, these types of incidents will likely become the norm in the future as the skies become increasingly crowded with drones used by consumers and businesses alike. In fact, according to a statement issued by the Federal Aviation Administration in early 2018, the agency, which has required drone operators to register their aircraft with the government since 2015, announced that the registry had topped one million drones. That figure included 878,000 hobbyist UAVs and 122,000 commercial, public and other drones.

This mass proliferation of UAVs has led critical infrastructure operators and airports, in particular, to look into drone detection and mitigation technologies; however, many end-users still have relatively few options when it comes to actually taking down a drone that poses a threat. Although the FAA Reauthorization Act signed into law late last year gives the U.S. Department of Homeland Security the authority to disable drones that pose a threat to buildings or other assets, the use of counter-drone technology is still limited to the federal government and military, leaving end-users and the vast majority of law enforcement agencies in a tough position.

“The state of things in the Western world is that current legislation is limiting the ability of law enforcement and security organizations to effectively fight drones,” says Avner Turniansky, VP of Strategy for Israeli counter drone startup Vorpal. “The U.S. is probably more advanced in understanding the need to update that legislation.”

Despite the fact that nearly all countries have limitations on where drones can fly and have clearly established no-fly zones over places like airports, Turniansky says that does little to deter someone with ill-intentions or who is just completely clueless about the dangers. Although he believes many of these regulations will be amended, Turniansky says that it will take time.

Luke Fox, Founder and CEO of WhiteFox Defense Technologies, which offers a counter-drone solution that helps end-users detect, identify and mitigate drones, as well as a system that provides secure remote identification and identity management of drones in airspace, echoes the concerns espoused by Turniansky as it relates to the ability of law enforcement to address drones threats.

“While there are a lot of different legal perspectives on the ability to use the technology, there is desperate need for explicit clarity in the law given to expand those authorities to local law enforcement and others responsible for public safety,” Fox says.

Though there is no specific law on the books that says you can’t mitigate a drone, Fox says what is prohibited is the use of technologies commonly used to bring them down.  

“In terms of the regulatory environment, you see two primary laws being applied: one is anti-jamming laws that are mostly regulation from the FCC that say, ‘Hey, play nice and don’t mess with the airways and let everyone use them freely,’ and then on the other end of the spectrum is the damage to aircraft laws, which gives FAA the authority to regulate drones in the national airspace system which then defines them as aircraft,” he says.

Given the number and different types of drones flying in the airspace today, Radoslaw Piesiewicz, Co-Founder of Advanced Protection Systems (APS), says that one of the biggest issues facing airports and other end-users is being able to distinguish between them and track them regardless of what technology the operator uses to communicate and navigate.

“The challenge is really to be able to detect each and every drone that could interfere with the airspace. These drones may be controlled by radio link, programmed navigation to fly autonomously via GPS or they might be controlled by a Wi-Fi or radio link that is working in the commercial frequency or a completely different frequency band,” Piesiewicz says. “You might be dealing with commercial drones, professional drones or even homemade drones, you never know and this is exactly the problem because the majority of (detection) systems on the market can only cope with a single type of drone.”

APS’ Ctrl+Sky solution leverages multiple detection technologies, including radar, acoustic array, cameras and RF sensors to detect drones at distances up to 2,000 meters. Once detected, Ctrl-Sky also features a proprietary multi-band jammer that can disrupt the drone’s communication link and navigation.

Drone Mitigation Concerns

While everyone may be clamoring for solutions that can not only detect but take down a drone, Turniansky says drone mitigation is “extremely unpredictable” in general and that all mitigation technologies available today come with a certain amount of uncertainty. For example, while the Army can use bulk jamming with great success in a place like Afghanistan, Turniansky says no one wants to transmit a 100-watt GPS jamming signal anywhere near an airport for fear of harming planes or other critical navigation and communication equipment in the area.

“No one is going to do widespread jamming in an urban environment,” he explains. “You have to do something that is more targeted, more surgical, more delicate, and more precise than just wideband barrage jamming, so mitigation is more limited.”    

Vorpal itself offers a “soft takeover” mitigation solution that mimics the command and control signals being sent to the drone, thereby allowing users to take it over and land it safely; however, that technology is export restricted by the Israeli government, according to Turniansky.  In cases where export of this technology is not allowed, Turniansky says they have partnered with companies that offer various other mitigation solutions, such as kinetic drone defense or jammer guns, when the user wants it.

“We’ve talked to more than one buyer, who told us, ‘Look, I bought these excellent drone guns, I just don’t know where to point them,’” he says. “But there are more requests today for information, intelligence or awareness than the actual mitigation component.”

Common Misconceptions

Wayne Horvath, who is in charge of Business Development for the U.S. market at APS, says one of the biggest misconceptions that both end-users and integrators have about counter drone technology is that they can install one “catch all” detection technology to address the threat.

“As events like Gatwick happen, people are learning that one solution or one technology is not sufficient to cover all the possible threats,” he says. “We have manufacturers out there putting forth just one solution or one technology and the users think, ‘Ok, I’ve deployed that and it covers all the possibilities,’ and that’s not the case.”

Another common misconception, according to Turniansky, is the notion that drones can be exclusively detected and tracked via radar. While it may seem like an ideal solution on the surface to a lay person, Turniansky says that because most drones are comprised mostly of plastic, reinforced carbon and/or polymer parts, that UAVs are a “pretty bad” target for radar and, when used as the primary detection methodology, typically results in numerous false alarms.

“Almost anything in the air that has a reflective surface at certain angles will look to radar like a bird or a drone and it’s hard to differentiate them,” he says. “Radar manufacturers are now going into micro-Doppler in order to try and mitigate that limitation.”

Vorpal’s VigilAir solution, which was initially developed for the Israeli military, leverages passive RF geolocation of drone command, control and data transmissions to detect, track and mitigate UAV threats. According to Turniansky, the company is most well-known for the accuracy of its geolocation technology, which provides users with a more precise location of a drone and its operator rather than a “general sector” like many offerings on the market.

In speaking with security managers in the U.S. and abroad, Horvath says it is clear that everyone is aware of the looming threats posed by drones but there is still much work to be done when it comes to educating the industry about the technologies that are available and the capabilities they provide.   

“The Gatwick incident is a very important wake-up call and from our perspective… this is all about risk management,” says Maciej Klemm, President and Co-Founder of APS.  “Critical infrastructure facilities cannot accept the smallest risk of terrorist incidents and with the threats presented by drones, these facilities should be adopting counter-drone systems to lower the security risk to their facility.” 

Fox believes it is imperative for both the drone and counter-drone industries that lawmakers provide better guidance on exactly what technologies end-users can leverage to mitigate drone threats and also specify who has the authority to use them before a future incident leads to overregulation.

“Our vision is to safely integrate drones into society, to unlock all of the potential drones offered to society – whether it is delivering life-saving blood transfusions or your Amazon package. These are amazing things that drones can do to truly revolutionize how the world operates and how people use different technologies,” he says. “Unfortunately, there is a concern about drones operating freely and wildly and that is where counter-drone technology allows you to have an enforcement mechanism so that you can lay down rules to the road and have a highway patrol in the sky to enforce against drones that are flying recklessly or maliciously.”

About the Author: 

Joel Griffin is the Editor of and a veteran security journalist. You can reach him at [email protected]

About the Author

Joel Griffin | Editor-in-Chief,

Joel Griffin is the Editor-in-Chief of, a business-to-business news website published by Endeavor Business Media that covers all aspects of the physical security industry. Joel has covered the security industry since May 2008 when he first joined the site as assistant editor. Prior to SecurityInfoWatch, Joel worked as a staff reporter for two years at the Newton Citizen, a daily newspaper located in the suburban Atlanta city of Covington, Ga.