US grappling with counter-UAS technology challenges

Posted: 09/07/2016


As Defence IQ has recently reported, the rising number of criminal and negligent incidents involving civilian unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) is pushing harder on the need for a greater awareness of the potential dangers to the public. However, in many cases, awareness is just not enough. The progress of UAS technology requires a tandem attention to the progress of counter-technology – effective and safe methods of neutralising these vehicles when they become a threat, particularly to vulnerable civil sites. 

Much of this process is being made in the United States, where the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has, as of August 29, released a rule to allow for the use of small UAS within national airspace. To get a better perspective on how this technology is moving forward, we caught up with Andrew Lacher, UAS Integration Lead and Research Strategist at technology R&D centre the MITRE Corporation, ahead of his brief at the Countering Drones conference (08-09 December; London, UK)…


Defence IQ:  Mr. Lacher, let’s look at the real threat situation as far as commercial unmanned systems are concerned. Are drones a serious concern at the moment? Or is it more a growing problem that hasn’t yet seen a need for serious ‘countermeasure’ technologies?

Andrew Lacher:  Well, it’s being taken seriously but I don’t think the answer is that simple. It’s a complex situation because the threat ranges from inadvertent operators –who may create a nuisance or a hazard with their operations – to a malicious actor who might be intending harm. Now, there have been no significant incidents among domestic UAS in terms of malicious actors intending harm, but there have been incidents where people have been using UAS for criminal purposes, such as smuggling items across a boundary, whether it be across a border or into a prison.

There have also been a number of unauthorised UAS systems blundering into areas and creating unsafe situations. So I think what the community is seeing are indicators of a troubling trend, and they're trying to get ahead of that trend. So, yes, people are taking it very seriously.

I believe there is a notable demand in the community for counter-UAS technology to address the potential growth in unauthorized UAS operations.  There are lots of vendors developing solutions in anticipation of this interest. The community itself consists of organisations worried about their own security and private security organisations as well as government agencies from local law enforcement, federal law enforcement, and the U.S. military for force protection, both domestically and overseas. 

DIQ:  That's okay, there seems to be enough taking place just in the civil airspace…

AL:  And the civil airspace is a real concern. The boundary between a safety and a security concern is hard to draw. When you have an unauthorised UAS flying near an airport, it could be somebody who simply doesn't know any better or it could be someone who is intending harm. We don't know. In either case it's an unauthorised operation that raises concerns because of the many things at risk.

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DIQ:  I understand MITRE is focusing primarily on the situation in the United States, though correct me if I’m wrong…

AL:  Right. MITRE's work in this space is primarily focused on the missions of federal agencies in countering civil UAS-related risks which include aviation safety/security, civil infrastructure protection, homeland security, and military force protection. We’re also working with local law enforcement. Our work with the Department of Homeland Security certainly brings us into contact with that element and with the first responder communities.

But we are actually thinking of solutions that may be arising from anywhere in the world. For example, we sponsored a challenge in August that had eight participants with systems we were evaluating in flight, using live airborne simulated threats. Those vendors came from all over the world – mostly Europe and the United States, but we also had participants from other regions. So, while our day-to-day work concerns the problems faced primarily from a U.S. federal government perspective, we're looking at a solution space that is worldwide.

DIQ:  Obviously the solution space always needs to be cost-effective and while this does seem to be a fledgling market, is there a sense that the solutions being tabled currently are in fact cheap to run? Is that aspect progressing at the ideal speed?

AL:  I would have to say there is no silver bullet technology out there, whether it be cost-effective or not, especially when you're considering a solution that will mitigate the operation of a UAS without interfering with other activities in a civil setting. There’s no perfect solution.

As part of our recent challenge, we were specifically looking at cost-effective solutions. But clearly, the concept of ‘cost-effective’ is in the eye of the beholder with regard to what is at risk. If you're worried about protecting a large high-risk area from intrusion, cost-effective means something different than if you're worried about protecting a small facility where there’s little risk. Depending on the importance, you may be willing to expend by quite a large amount of money. So it's all relative. There are some things that work, but they don't mitigate the most sophisticated threats.

DIQ:  As you said earlier, in terms of those problems, at least when we look at the civil space, there's a need to ensure that any counter-UAS technology doesn't endanger the people it's trying to protect, or the assets it's trying to protect.  Is that the biggest concern at the moment in regards to something that could affect how this technology is absorbed? 

AL:  Well, you want your solution to not create other problems whether it be a hazard to the same people you're trying to protect or whether you’re using a solution that creates a widespread effect, such as jamming GPS. That could create a whole host of other problems for safety. In other words, we have to think of the trade-offs. We’re worried about that, and there are a significant number of policy concerns, especially in the United States, where it concerns jamming and the authority to actually jam communication signals. That’s a policy issue. 

Even the notion of interfering with an aircraft in flight – that’s against the law. Who has the authority to do that? Can federal law enforcement? Local law enforcement? Private security companies? Private citizens? Determining who has that authority means we have to work through some of those issues.

DIQ:   At the most recent Farnborough Air Show, Defence IQ asked an FAA representative whether the desire to get regulations in place and ensure commercial opportunities for unmanned systems are moving forward would, in effect, outpace the ability to ensure we have the right security and countermeasures in place. Do you think that’s a risk?

AL:  Well, one thing to consider is that new technologies enable a lot of things, positive and negative. Using an analogy, the internet is used by bad actors. Everything from child molesters to drug dealers use the internet for illegal purposes, but we don't ban the internet or stop its development.

The same thing is true with UAS. We shouldn't let the potential of bad things unduly constrain our ability to embrace the good. We do need to make sure that we can operate UAS in a safe manner and that there may need to be policies and procedures in place so we can ensure a high standard of security, but we shouldn't lock progress down because of that. As we do with the internet, we should prepare for the bad actors as well.

DIQ:  And on the subject of the good things, where do you see the next few years in terms of the positive changes that will be made in this market? What’s your ideal vision?

AL:  In the United States, the first specific aviation regulation that enables the operation of unmanned aircraft has gone into effect from 29 August. It will enable small UAS – less than 55 pounds – to be operated in relatively rural areas – away from people but in line of sight of the operator. That opens the door to a whole range of potential applications. There's a lot of excitement now. Early on, I was personally involved with the development of that rule and I'm very pleased by its publication.

However, we in the US have much more progress to make. We need to find ways that we can expand the access of operating unmanned aircraft. We're opening the door now, but we need to enable access of UAS at night-time, near to people, and in urban areas. We need to extend the operational range beyond the visual sight of the operator on the ground. Things like that are the next steps to enabling even more applications. MITRE, as an organisation, is working very closely with the FAA on mechanisms to do that safely.

DIQ:  Given that you’ll be speaking at the Countering Drones conference (06-08 December; London, UK), is there anything that you're particularly interested in hearing from our audience on the counter-technology end, particularly as we’ll have a lot of European perspective in the room?

AL:  Firstly, I’m looking forward to sharing our work. I'm going to talk in general about our perspective on the challenge of countering unauthorised UAS operations but then specifically talk about the challenge we sponsored and the results from it. We’ll in fact be announcing the results on 8 September.

I hope to get more information about other possible solutions out there, and what other organisations and oversight entities are doing to deal with some of the policy challenges with UAS operations. I'm looking for ideas and best practices from a policy standpoint, but also looking for technology solutions. About half of the participants in our contest were European, and I think there are a couple of reasons for that. For one, they may be able to test and develop technologies with greater ease because of different policy and regulatory environment. That may be one reason we're seeing great innovations coming out of Europe.

Posted: 09/07/2016

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