As gunfire rang out near the king’s palace in Riyadh Saturday night, global spectators briefly assumed that the incident could only mean a coup was underway. The official explanation from the Saudi government perplexed as much as it assuaged: the gunfire was not in response to any military attack. It was, instead, an attempt to stop a toy drone. The king’s palace in Riyadh is not a prison. Yet it might be more protected against drones if it were one.
Such was the connection suggested by drone detection company Dedrone, whose clients include the Georgia Department of Corrections, the Suffolk County Correctional Facility, and the Royal Family of Qatar. Dedrone boasts of a system that can detect, track, and if hooked up to jammers made by a partner company, disable any incoming drone, should it be deemed a threat. If the toy drone in Riyadh is the context of the counter-drone moment, then Dedrone’s announcement today fits squarely into the present. Dedrone is partnering with Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx) to test the technology at selected protected sites.
“People use drones to drop contraband into prisons. A prison needs to know there’s a drone coming, it needs to know the direction it’s coming from, and presentation,” says Joerg Lamprecht, CEO and co-founder of Dedrone. The prison use-case is straightforward ― by definition a tightly controlled, locked-down environment, keeping contraband out is the heart of the task, and should a drone deliver a payload into the prison yard, everything and everyone inside can be locked down until whatever the drone was carrying can be recovered.
Beyond prisons, that same suite of tools have appeal for businesses looking to protect secrets for airborne robotic eyes, from events hosting heads of state, and for military bases. These capabilities do not come cheap, though there is a range of options available and those options scale. The basic model is an omnidirectional radio frequency detection tower, which can identify drones in a dome-shape extending about 1 kilometer. This unit costs $15,000, and provides the people using it with essentially a rough read on drone traffic in their immediate area. Should the customer want more information, they can purchase multiple towers, as well as camera systems to provide video identification, and the intelligence software to track and identify the drones it sees. To cover a stadium with a set-up like this is priced at $250,000, and to cover a larger industrial facility would set the buyer back $1 million.
“The requirement from DoD is not so much to protect a large campus or a large base,” says Lamprecht. “you want to know where are drones, what kind of drones, is it the same one, is it different ones. We’ll be deployed deployed at various bases across the continental U.S., I don’t know which ones, to check out the activity level of drones.”
Dedrone’s new contract with DIUx was awarded in March, and it expands on an earlier two-month study at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, where Dedrone used it sensors to detect drone flights in the national capital no-fly-zone.
Like its other uses, these military installations of Dedrone will be fully autonomous sensor systems, monitoring the traffic within the reach of its sensors for any drone activity, 24/7. While there’s no human needed to monitor the sensors in real time, humans can look at a graphic display that shows where drones are presently. The systems also record forensic data, the depth of which is determined by how many sensors are part of the system and what analysis software is part of the package. The system can integrate with various communication protocols, including first responder networks to send people alerts and forensics, configured to display on smartphones or tablets.
“It can detect multiple drones, with optics, radars, and with radio frequency, which means it’s able to detect swarms,” says Lamprecht. “The hard thing is to detect what drone in the swarm carries the payload. If there’s 20, and one is carrying a payload, you want to bring it down.” Detecting payloads on drones is the next generation of detection tools, but for now, simply detecting the drones is likely to be enough.
With all this information, and most importantly with time and patterns of use, the people in charge of securing a base or other facility from drones can get a good baseline read of what drone activity is normal, what isn’t, and if there’s a specific threat that needs to be addressed. While scratch-built drones and commercial drones modified to drop bombs are part of the threat environment of the world broadly, the exploding drones used against Saudi-aligned forces in Saudi’s ongoing intervention into the war in Yemen are both larger than most anything that could be classified as a toy drone, and have yet to be seen anywhere significantly north of the border with Yemen. Knowing the pattern of local drone flights, as well as the make and model of the drone detected over the palace, could have saved the forces guarding the palace from responding to a toy with lethal fire. If a detection system was in place and connected to a jammer, it’s possible the drone could have been brought down harmlessly without any shots fired at all.
“There are laws for drones that you must not fly over the king’s palace, but what if you do?,” says Lamprecht. “If you’re 17 years old, you can use tools to register your drone, say ‘I’m going to fly tomorrow,’ and give a flight path. But if you don’t, what’s your intention? And if you’re a security guy on the king’s palace, how do you read that?”
Kelsey Atherton blogs about military technology for C4ISRNET, Fifth Domain, Defense News, and Military Times. He previously wrote for Popular Science, and also created, solicited, and edited content for a group blog on political science fiction and international security.