Drones have been deployed in many parts of defense, national security, and law enforcement. But often, their capabilities, strategies and tactics are often best tested in clashes with other drones. This is one of the purposes of the DroneClash event, which held its second annual event last month.
Produced by the Technical University Delft’s Mavlab in the Netherlands, nine teams from around the world competed against each other in capture-the-Queen style battles. “Each team has a Queen Drone which other teams must destroy or incapacitate for 10 seconds, while protecting their own Queen Drone,” said DroneClash Project Director Bart Remes. “Apart from infrastructure jamming, all offensive and defensive measures are allowed. Oft-used strategies are hacking the opposing team’s navigation, colliding, and throwing nets over the opposing drone.”
Teams from Germany, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Italy, and the U.S. participated in this year’s event; a British team withdrew after registration.
The battles took place in a specially-constructed arena, 20 square meters wide and six meters high, constructed from polycarbonate – the same transparent material used in police riot shields. The clashes, which involved everything from flame throwers to water cannons, were spectacular.
Each team could deploy as many drones as they wished, as long as it included one Queen and one Fighter drone. The missions for each team were to destroy as many opposing drones as possible while staying “alive.”
As a surprise, every now and then a “suspicious” drone would fly through the Clash airspace – the TinyWhoop, a very small consumer drone. The audience participated by hacking the TinyWhoop to bring it down.
And the winners were…
After all the clashes, the following teams were awarded prizes:
- Team Slunse from Belgium was the winner of the grand price ($34,500).
- Team Dipol from Germany came in second ($5,650), and won a prize for the “Most Innovative Team”, earning an extra $5,650.
- Team Speeddrones from The Netherlands took third place, winning $2,800.
- Team Bluff from Switzerland won the “Best Autonomous Flying” prize, earning $5,650.
After the event, two conclusions emerged:
First, the drones’ spherical shape proved to be all the rage in the 2019 event. Geodesic drones deployed by teams Bluff, Slunse, and Spinfast proved resilient, bouncing back from battering to fly again.
Because brute force was an effective tactic at the 2018 DroneClash, many teams built super-strength drones that they used to batter the competition. Teams used lots of carbon fiber and aluminium in their drones, creating epic battles between ramming drones. For example, in the Bluff vs. Slunse semi-final, the opposing fighters battered each other relentlessly.
Second, battery power and strength decided many battles. With many of their fighters down, teams would then try to conserve their Queen’s battery power by hovering low to the ground. The final clash between teams Slunse and Dipol became endurance tests, with battery life proving to be the decisive factor.
Defense, not offense
This year’s DroneClash attracted many representatives from various armed forces and law enforcement agencies.
While certain offensive applications, such as weapons manufacturer Kalashnikov’s drone, which can carry 3 kilograms (7.6 lbs) and fly up to 30 minutes at a speed of 130 kph (81 mph), many armed forces, including the Dutch military, have chosen to focus on defensive applications.
“The government acknowledges the importance of staying abreast of defensive technology,” said Lt. Col. Rob Olthoff, head of the C-UAS team at the Dutch Ministry of Defense. “We need to know how we can get these things back on the ground safely and with minimal damage. That’s why we participate in DroneClash.”
DroneClash 2019 made it clear that damaging opponents physically offers limited possibilities, while hacking is often more effective as it has an important role to play in exposing security flaws and strengthening systems.
When it comes to drones, hacking has potential as a way to detect nefarious drones, as well as take action in a precise and targeted way. For example, instead of going through the potentially lengthy process of confirming drone sightings, clearing an area and firing some sort of counter-drone weapon, a hacker could potentially take over the command of an approaching rogue drone, redirect and land it safely, where it could be investigated.
The Netherlands’ prominent role
Prince Pieter-Christiaan van Oranje Nassau, cousin of the Dutch king and a prominent proponent of new technologies, validated the importance of the DroneClash and drone defense in general by opening the event.
Speaking to Robotic Business Review, he pointed out the importance of drone technology research and development: “The technology is far from mature. Knowledge exchange via media and events like DroneClash are very important as it shows the potential and desire for The Netherlands to become a drone technology innovation hub. This is symbolized by the fact that the Ministry of Defense and the National Police sponsor the DroneClash.”
While most agreed the event was successful in learning additional strategies, organizers said there is not yet a “silver bullet” for authorities to safely and effectively down a drone. “The solution we are working towards is some sort of mechanical eagle,” said Kevin van der Hecke, one of the brains behind the competition. “This year we saw DroneClash competitors replicate the flying speeds, and ramming force of birds of prey, but we still have big steps to take in terms of grasping and safely depositing a rogue drone. We will continue to organize future DroneClash events and evolve the rules to push counter-drone innovation further and faster.”