July 07, 2015      

Fear of the small-but nasty

Micro-drones (or micro-UAVs), the youngest, smallest, newest exhibitors at the 90-year-old Paris Air Show, got 2,215 fellow exhibitors, including the big boys from the military and commercial jet industry, on the defensive in a very big way.

Military, security forces and other industry organizations are more than a little wary of the menace posed by mini and micro flying machines in the wrong hands.

The thought of a single, very inexpensive $1500 micro-drone going after a $60 million Russian Su-35 had Le Bourget Field abuzz with speculation.

The silver lining in the fear and loathing surrounding these small aircraft is that therein awaits a potentially multi-million dollar industry to protect people and infrastructure from these threats.

For example, C4ISI.com reported British technology companies Blighter Surveillance Systems, Chess Dynamics and Enterprise Control Systems last month combined to launch an anti-UAV defense system to detect, classify and disrupt micro, mini and larger drones.

Mark Radford, the Blighter CEO, said the companies “were acutely aware of the urgent operational requirement from our customers for an effective and affordable anti-UAV system.”

Some of the anti-drone options coming from defense contractor Thales include ground surveillance radars, direction finders, acoustic sensors, command and control, electronic support, jamming, smart munitions and even drone interceptors into mini-air defense systems.

That all sounds very expensive!

Is it a bird or a plane?

Threats posed by covert aerial intrusions using cheap and unconventional means are not new. Palestinian guerrillas using flying hang gliders to infiltrate an army base in 1987 was cited as one example.

Larry Dickerson, an analyst at Forecast International, remarked anti-drone defense technology has been around for years. : “Companies are repurposing systems and slapping ‘counter UAV’ on them to gain attention.”

Detection vs. identification seems to be the real trick to pull off: Most everybody can detect an object. “The big trick is discriminating small UAVs from birds. We have invested a lot in developing the algorithms to detect and discriminate a UAV from birds smaller than a blackbird,” said Wim Schuttert, an executive from Thales.

Laser weapon technology is one promising avenue for anti-drone defense.

One contractor reported that a laser “that produces a 40-kilowatt beam, will be able to destroy mini-UAVs at a range of five kilometers once it reaches operational status, potentially within five years.”

Test firings with a 20-kilowatt beam have caused a micro-drone flying 500 meters away to burst into flames and crash.

Other proposed solutions include: “Radio frequency disruption, GPS jamming, small guided missiles, cannon-fired smart munitions, even a UAV deploying a net.”

Whether laser or a fish net, the threat of mini- or micro-drones has come on very fast and is very real. And in the process will undoubtedly create lots of new jobs-well-paying jobs at that-in the soon-to-be-burgeoning anti-drone business.

Just another small case of robotics making and not taking jobs.