In early July, a security officer guarding a gate at a U.S. military base (the location was not disclosed) watched helplessly as a small civilian drone flew past his post. That same week, a different drone almost collided with a landing F-22. Following those incidents, General Mike Holmes, who heads the Air Combat Command at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, announced that he needed the authority and equipment to bring down any drone that invades his airspace. Currently, even though flight over military bases is forbidden, there isn’t much the military can legally do to stop a robotic intruder. But if he were given that authority, Holmes would have a rapidly growing range of options for drone hunting. The anti-drone industry is—pardon the pun—exploding.
Michael Blades, research director at market research firm Frost & Sullivan, says that a year ago the anti-drone industry was too new to even offer a market estimate. But things have changed, and quickly. Blades thinks the anti-drone business is worth “between $500 million and a billion dollars right now.” And he isn’t alone in his thinking: Other market firms project growth rates as high as 26 percent, with market values hitting $1.5 billion by 2023. “I think double-digit growth is a foregone conclusion,” says Blades, “just because they’re starting from almost zero right now.”
His estimate is largely based on military acquisitions; there are still too many legal hurdles, particularly in the United States, for the commercial anti-drone business to take off. “It’s gonna be a lot like the drone deal,” says Blades. “You’re not going to be able to use commercial drones in a lot of applications until they have favorable regulations. It’s the same thing with the counter-drone stuff.”
Counter drone systems run the gamut from trained attack eagles and radio jammers to directed energy systems like lasers. Some of these techologies are expensive. For example, Blighter Surveillance Systems’ new Anti-UAV Defense System (AUDS), which was just purchased by the Spanish military, cost as much as $1,000,000. AUDS is a 24 hour, all-weather system using visible and thermal imagery, acoustic detection, and radar with a 10-kilometer range; when a drone is targeted, high-gain radio antennas jam and disable it at stand-off distances.
Most anti-drone solutions work by attacking the drone’s radio transmissions. By jamming its incoming commands, an intruding drone can be sent scurrying back to its launch point. In war zones like Iraq and Syria, those returning drones are often followed by an air strike or artillery fire aimed at the drone operator. Other radio attack systems take complete control of the aircraft and can initiate a forced landing. But none of these systems are legal in the United States, because they interfere with legal radio transmissions such as wireless computer networks, and that puts the jammer in the sights of the Federal Communications Commission.
Other anti-drone systems take a brute force approach. OpenWorks Engineering developed the Skywall 100, which brings down drones by snagging them with a net fired by a bazooka-type launcher. Other firms are working on attack drones, which means drone dogfights could be in our future. But these systems will run afoul of the Federal Aviation Administration, and because drones currently enjoy the same legal protections that manned aircraft do, bringing one down is a felony regardless of how or why it’s done. Consequently, broad scale use of anti-drone technologies are stymied in this country by regulations. Overseas, restrictions vary, and many countries have none.
So downing a drone over an Air Force base is, until changes come in the regulatory world, treated in the same way as if it had been a civilian-carrying Cessna. For now, General Holmes can only watch as drones overfly his air bases.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the base where the drone overflight occurred, an error introduced during editing. General Holmes, in his speech at the Air Force Association, did not mention the location. We also deleted an unrelated link to an erroneous story. We regret the errors.—The Editors