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Adam Bannister is a contributor to IFSEC Global, having been in the role of Editor from 2014 through to November 2019. Adam also had stints as a journalist at cybersecurity publication, The Daily Swig, and as Managing Editor at Dynamis Online Media Group.
May 17, 2023

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‘Drones are five years ahead of autonomous cars’ – Justin Pringle on UAV threats and countermeasures

As their capabilities evolve, drones are at once an increasingly potent threat and tool for security professionals and blue-light services. That’s the opinion of drone expert and tech futurist Justin Pringle, as he tackled the topic during IFSEC’s 50th edition.

As their capabilities evolve, drones are at once an increasingly potent threat and tool for security professionals and blue-light services.

Justin Pringle, a drone training tutor for Tavcom Training, spoke at IFSEC’s 50th edition on Wednesday 17 May in an effort to plug what he sees as common gaps in security pros’ understanding of these evolving capabilities.

Undermining risk strategies

Pringle, who has built drones used on the sets of Game of Thrones, Star Wars and James Bond productions, will warn that this aerial threat undermines prevailing risk strategies.

Drone-TallBuildings-20The assertion is certainly supported by the wealth of examples of drones bypassing conventional security defences. For instance, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have briefly menaced the Kremlin, disrupted sporting events, crashed into a nuclear plant, smuggled drugs into prisons, collided with an airplane and disrupted flights at Gatwick Airport.

Worse still, those seeking to defend against drones – whether it’s private organisations, the military or law enforcement – are still struggling to tackle the drone technology of five years ago, let alone rapidly emerging capabilities.

The Ukraine war theatre in particular has been a hotbed of innovation at the DIY user level. For instance, Ukrainian drones have dropped bombs made with energy drink cans and a 3D printer and dropped surrendering instructions to a Russian soldier and escorted him to his captors.

Pringle says he has long sounded the alarm on a “massive vulnerability” whereby activists, terrorists or mischief-makers could “use drones to drop things”.

“Everyone understands the copycat threat when it comes to security and terrorism,” says the tech futurist, who has previously advised counterterror units and the Ministry of Defence on the evolving drone threat. However, he says the menace posed by “14 or 15 year olds” with inexpensive consumer drones is underappreciated.

Countermeasures

Drones can be detected by radar, radio frequency (RF) analyzers, acoustic sensors and optical sensors.

High-tech solutions for neutralizing drones include RF jammers, GPS spoofers, high-energy lasers and high power microwave (HPM) devices, while anti-drone nets and birds of prey offer low tech alternatives.

However, all methods for detecting and disabling, destroying or seizing control of drones have drawbacks. For instance, RF jammers are less effective on pre-programmed drones that fly without GPS, can disrupt emergency communication signals and are usually illegal.

Pringle wants “more people to understand what drone capabilities are” and their utility in deterring and countering hostile drones.

“I firmly believe it’s one of the few situations when you can fight fire with fire,” he says. “If you’ve got a drone incursion then you need to be able to put another drone up to counter it.”

Collaborative drones

Pringle believes “drones are five years ahead of autonomous cars” in their ability to act autonomously. “Drones are using AI to the point where it’s so [fine]-tuned that they can pretty much get to the point of [autonomous] decision-making,” he says.

Pringle, who once showcased mine-detecting drone swarms at the House of Commons, says he knows of US-based drone developers who can now deploy “collaboratives drones”, where “one drone could do a survey and then other drones can be launched to do other specific activities.”

The ability of today’s drones to execute complex tasks in concert is illustrated by numerous videos of spectacular fireworks and light shows created by drone swarms.

These capabilities also point to the growing utility of drones in the context of emergency situations.

“If there’s a road accident or a security incident, how do we get a swarm of drones to [patrol the perimeter] or undertake tasks?” says Pringle.

Their primary goal, he says, could be creating 3D images that provide situational awareness before humans enter a scene, rather than “functioning on human assumption”.

Training tips

Pringle says his experiences in the film business offer lessons for training and recruiting drone pilots in the security arena. “In the movie world you’ve either got a good pilot or a good cameraman – you never get a good cameraman who’s also a good pilot. It just doesn’t work like that.”

Similarly, “you’re going to get good security people and good drone pilots”.

Yet “there are lots of people who fast-track using these devices without understanding” how to use them, Pringle warns – a serious concern given drones are “very prone to human error”.

In the right hands, “these technologies are lovely to have”, he says, but “in the wrong hands they’re a liability”.

 

 

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