ROME — Directed-energy beams could be the next step in bringing down hostile drones, officials from the Italian Air Force are predicting.
“This technology is moving really fast and we are evaluating both microwave and lasers as solutions for stopping drones,” said Col. Salvatore Lombardi, director of the Air Force’s UAV center of excellence at Amendola Air Base, southern Italy, which trains personnel, studies capabilities and develops standards.
He said Italian experts will join officials from fellow NATO countries in October to test-fire different kinetic solutions, including lasers, against drones at the Salto di Quirra military test range in Sardinia, Italy.
Until lasers get the nod, the Air Force will continue using an anti-drone system of systems named ACUS, or Air Force Counter Unmanned System, which fights drone threats using radio frequency and GPS jamming, said Col. Luca Urso, the head of counter-UAV programs at the Air Force headquarters’ logistic department.
Guns can also be used to shoot down drones or to fire a net to capture them, he added.
To detect, track and identify drones, the system relies on a radio frequency detector, which senses commands being issued to a drone by its operator, as well as radar and electro-optical sensors.
With an eye on the future, the system is built with open, modular and scalable architecture to allow plug-in solutions.
“We closely watch the military market as well the civilian drone market to monitor potential threats to military bases, airports and national airspace,” Lombardi said.
Components of the Air Force setup are provided by Italian defense firm Leonardo, which also supplies the British Royal Air Force with counter-drone technology.
The firm is now developing its radar technology to better identify drone threats, with smarter algorithms and passive radar shaping up as two key research areas.
As opposed to regular radar, which emits a signal and waits for it to bounce back from a target, passive radar picks up signals that are emitted elsewhere and deflect off the target. That becomes useful in cities, where TV, cellphone and other signals abound.
“Laboratory tests with passive radar as a way to identify drones have been positive,” according to a Leonardo official.
Algorithms are also under development to distinguish radar images of drones from, for example, seagulls, or figure out which drone in a swarm is carrying a bomb.
As drones become more autonomous, meaning less radio traffic, the possibility of using radio frequency detection could be reduced, making radar more important.
“The development of better batteries gives drones more processing power, which in turn allows them to be more autonomous, which in turn means we cannot expect to track the instructions they are sent,” the company official said.
Any technology developed to counter a threat will always generate technology to overcome it, and the official said he expects to see drones devised to take out the radars that spot them.
“In the future we could see kamikaze drones targeting radar, like an anti-radiation missile. That means the radar you use has to be harder to spot by a drone. We are working on radars that use reduced power, change frequency constantly and transmit intermittently,” he said.
Tom Kington is the Italy correspondent for Defense News.