Managing Editor, IFSEC Insider

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James Moore is the Managing Editor of IFSEC Insider, the leading online publication for security and fire news in the industry.James writes, commissions, edits and produces content for IFSEC Insider, including articles, breaking news stories and exclusive industry reports. He liaises and speaks with leading industry figures, vendors and associations to ensure security and fire professionals remain abreast of all the latest developments in the sector.
February 19, 2021


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Counter drone tactics: Which drones are a real threat, and which aren’t?

With airbourne security more important than ever, security personnel must be able to differentiate between drones that are a nuisance, and those that are a genuine threat. Jeffrey Starr, Counter Drone Strategist and CMO at D-Fend Solutions, offers advice on what to look for when assessing drones that may cause a genuine security or safety risk.

Awareness of the threat posed by small, unmanned aerial systems (sUASs), more commonly known as drones, has grown along with the constant stream of news stories about poorly piloted or rogue drones. In August and September alone, four separate Major League Baseball games were delayed by drone intrusions, Air Force One had a close call with a drone while President Trump was onboard the plane and a drone carrying marijuana, cigarette lighters and cellphones got caught in a net above a Mississippi prison fence.

To their credit, organisations across sensitive environments and industries are moving quickly to evaluate and then implement counter-small, unmanned aerial systems (C-sUASs). But a lack of focus, perhaps caused by some misconceptions, still exists in the market. Some counter-drone solution project evaluators are chasing an antidote for every potential rogue drone in existence.

Nuisance or Menace?

Not all drones pose an equal threat and C-sUAS project evaluators often make a strategic error by embarking on an exhaustive and futile effort to cover and counter the largest possible number of drone models, rather than applying a more strategic and surgical focus to the actual threat. The reality is that many drones are effectively much lower risk as far as the realistic possibility of causing harm to many people or critical assets.

Smaller, short-range drones include sUASs for youth, hobbyists and those purchased for recreational activities, such as photography and video. These short-range drones are usually small and often controlled directly by smartphones. Their connection to smartphones via Wi-Fi communication may limit these drones to a flight range of tens of yards/metres. And their smaller size means they cannot carry a substantial payload, or maybe any payload at all.

Some such drones may only be used indoors because their wind resistance is very poor. These are the ones you may occasionally see stuck in a tree.

These drones may be a nuisance and their ability to collect video and photography can be a privacy issue, but they do not present an immediate concern in terms of a major attack, collision or smuggling. Disproportional investment in the mitigation of non-threatening drones is a waste of time and resources, and a distraction from focusing on the real risk.

Three dimensions of dangerous drones

Certain types of drones can be extremely dangerous if they fall into the wrong hands, or are used recklessly. When it comes to protection and defence against rogue drone activity, the focus should be on drones that truly pose potential threats. The three dimensions that together determine the most dangerous drones are:

  • Long-range capability
  • Heavy payload capacity
  • Weather and wind resistance

Long-range refers to mid- to large-size drones that can fly several kilometres. They can be purchased commercially, or home-built via off-the-shelf parts. They utilise long-distance radio communication to fly long distances, while transmitting telemetry and video back to their remote controller, or ground station.

Heavy payload describes the capacity to carry payloads of over a few kilograms, which means that explosives, drugs, weapons and contraband can be attached to them.

Long-range, high payload drones can be purchased ready to fly, or as a do it yourself (DIY) kit to assemble. Their payload capabilities are a critical threat component. These drones can hover and automatically avoid obstacles, and even fly through inclement weather. Most concerning, these are not expensive items: The entire package may cost less than $1,000 from merchants that will ship the drones to the buyer’s door.

Weather and wind resistance are other important factors in determining which drones are dangerous. To complete long-range trips, drones must be able to withstand average or even heavy winds and remain on course. People with nefarious intentions, motivation and skill will avoid drones that malfunction in unusually hot, cold, rainy or snowy environments.

Four Different Drone Dangers 

Focusing on drone threat categories can facilitate a better understanding of the factors that make up the most dangerous drones. Drone threats can be broken down into four clear categories:

The first threat category is drone attack. Drones can carry explosives, or even biological or chemical weapons. All the above could be used for an attack on a range of targets, including critical facilities, VIPs or urban populations. For this type of attack, a criminal would obviously require a long-range drone that can withstand the elements and reach the target – probably a considerable distance from the drone pilot, who will want to be out-of-sight and far from the attack. And carrying the necessary weapons requires heavy payload capabilities.

READ: Eye in the sky – airspace security trends to watch for in 2021

The second type of threat is a collision, which threatens the safety of people and planes, and can damage property. A drone can be piloted remotely and sent into the vicinity or flightpath of an airplane, whether accidentally or on purpose, which puts passengers and crew at risk. A drone can also be piloted directly into a crowded stadium, which turns the drone itself into a hazard. The larger and heavier these drones are, the more damage they will do upon impact. This will of course be significantly amplified if they are carrying heavy explosives.

The third threat is invasion of privacy, or espionage. Many drones are equipped with powerful cameras, which offer a literal bird’s eye view on both individuals and sensitive sites. Espionage – whether against private citizens, enterprise companies or government agencies – and piracy have become issues of increasing concern with drones. Once again, these drones will likely need to be able to fly at least moderate distances, as the pilot will not want to be nearby during the illegal act, and possess an ability to carry some of the larger, more powerful cameras.

This category could include drones being used to spy into a window or collect information on a critical facility, or illegally filming outdoor sporting events. They may not be able to carry heavy payloads, but have an embedded camera, long-range capabilities and weather/wind resistance.

The last type is utilising the drone for smuggling. Drug smuggling via drones has become a major issue for prison personnel and border patrols. Weapons or other illicit items are also sometimes smuggled out of the view of ground-based security. Someone trying to smuggle items into a prison or across borders needs heavy payload capabilities and is not going to want to be close to the destination during the attempted intrusion. Border regions run the gamut in terms of weather, so the drones involved in smuggling must be able to function in extreme conditions.

Focus on the real risk – the dangerous drones 

Do not get overwhelmed by thinking you need to protect against every type of drone that exists! Relatively small drones that cannot travel far do not pose much of a risk to your organisation. The best counter-drone strategies will focus on the easily accessible, commercial or DIY drones that can cause real damage.

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