This X-shaped sensor will alert you to incoming drones, so you can freak out
OAKLAND, Calif.—As I stand along the shores of Lake Merritt on a breezy summer day, I try to imagine I’m someone with either enough fame or money to worry about over-zealous paparazzi and over-curious neighbors. And because it’s 2016, when anyone can buy an inexpensive drone and fly it over my wall, I need some sort of countermeasure, like Dedrone’s DroneTracker.
Aerospace engineer wants to scan for audio signatures of flying robots.
I peer into a video feed and see an approaching object, marked as a green dot. It’s unclear based on the distance whether it’s a bird, a plane, Superman, or, indeed, a drone. As this drone approaches my DroneTracker, the green dot morphs into a red dot and then a red square.
DroneTracker uses a combination of microphones, wireless sensors, video cameras, and infrared sensors to detect incoming drones. As was shown during a recent demonstration, DroneTracker knows how to distinguish between planes and overhead birds.
Within seconds, I get an e-mail, complete with a picture of the offending drone and even a description of what kind of drone the tracker thinks is coming toward me. For now, the DroneTracker follows drones (within about 1,600 feet), records their movements, and gives an alert. It has no countermeasures, such as jamming signals, firing nets, or even triggering shotgun blasts into the sky. But no worries, Dedrone sells a jammer as an add-on.
Such detection systems don’t come cheap: DroneTracker starts at $10,000 “per installation” and goes up into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. In real life, I’m probably not going to be putting a drone sensor on my house anytime soon.
Of course, not just rich people want to protect themselves against drones. Lee Jones, a Dedrone manager, explains that the German startup wants to sell to jails, prisons, embassies, police stations, military facilities, data centers, and even sports arenas.
Earlier this year, the company announced a deal with the New York Mets baseball team to install 11 trackers along the outside of Citi Field in Queens. The company also has a deal with the Suffolk County Prison to help to keep out unwanted contraband. For now, DroneTracker’s capabilities are detection-only.
“We absolute understand that countermeasures are a key part of the equation,” Jones told Ars. “But before you can apply any countermeasures, you have to find [what you’re looking for].”
Dedrone is one of a handful of companies that have staked their future on defensive mechanisms.
In 2013, Ars reported on Drone Shield, a DIY-style project that has since grown into a full-fledged business venture that was acquired by an Australian company. As of April 2016, Drone Shield has about 200 installations, while DeDrone has about 150.
These companies focus exclusively on detection, while other larger, more military-minded firms do detection and neutralization. Israeli defense contractor Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, for example, is capable of jamming a drone’s radio signals. Other larger models made my military contractors have the ability to detect drones at much greater range than DroneTracker.
“It’s quite early to tell who is definitively rising to the top in this sector, and with the level of interest we have seen so far from larger companies, it’s going to become a difficult environment for small startups,” Arthur Holland Michael, co-director of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College, told Ars. “The large companies can leverage their current products—for example, their anti-mortar systems, or their lasers—and simply retool them for counter-drone use. Startups, on the other hand, need to build systems from the ground up.”
For now, the drone detection sector of the broader drone market is still relatively small: so far, Dedrone hasraised about $13 million in investment, while the consumer drone market is expected to reach $4.19 billion by 2024, according Grand View Research.
Even the federal government is taking drone detection seriously. In May 2016, the Federal Aviation Administration tested the FBI’s own system at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City.
“We face many difficult challenges as we integrate rapidly evolving UAS technology into our complex and highly regulated airspace,” said Marke “Hoot” Gibson, a FAA Senior Advisor, in a statement. “This effort at JFK reflects everyone’s commitment to safety.”
In August 2016, Dedrone will compete against seven other finalists as part of the Mitre Challenge, which is a competition that offers $100,000 in prize money to come up with the best “solution to detect and interdict” drones that weigh less than five pounds.
“Drones are here to stay,” said Jones, “And we need technology that can control and detect them.”