MILAN, Italy — Manufacturers of counter-drone weaponry say they are increasingly miniaturizing and simplifying their solutions to meet rising demand for man-portable weapons, as recent conflicts have accentuated the importance of mobile capabilities.
Man-portable, counter-unmanned aerial systems (C-UAS) have been around for some time, however, with the growing threat of weaponized commercial drones in recent years, their proliferation has accelerated. In a 2019 C-UAS database report compiled by the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College, out of 537 market products analyzed, 111 (21%) were hand-held solutions, offered by over 29 different countries.
Warren Brown, vice president of Marketing at Fortem Technologies, explains that the purpose and ways these systems are used today have also changed over the last decade. “Historically, security detail and protection of major events or key infrastructure has been focused on fixed solutions. The more recent conflicts in the Middle East and Ukraine have shifted the focus to ‘on-the-move’ systems that provide advanced radar detection capabilities, ease of deployment and portability, low overall cost of operation as well as low per-use cost,” he said. There seems to have also been to an extent a change in the belief that C-UAS measures must be large in order to be good.
Previously, many militaries relied on more conventional jamming alternatives to counter hostile drones, either because they lacked the access or resources to acquire more proper and reliable systems. However, Brown states that resorting to deploy legacy equipment is not always effective, as they were not necessarily developed to address the full and ever-evolving technology behind drone threats.
“Traditional jamming solutions have had a low success rate, forcing the use of costly and impractical systems such as larger missile weapons, and even deploying fighter aircraft to attempt to mitigate the threat – often ineffective on small, maneuverable and hard-to-detect UAVs,” he said. Such a scenario was most recently on display in South Korea’s failed attempt to shoot down its neighbors’ drones for several hours.
Manufacturers have taken notice of these issues, building on existing technologies but reimagining them to more effectively address the dangers drones pose, specifically smaller ones that may be harder to counter. In May 2022, Fortem Technology sent its man-portable DroneHunters to Ukraine, stating in a press release that it had taken the pre-existing C-UAS system and further miniaturized and simplified it for use as an expeditionary rapid deployment weapon.
Matt McCrann, CEO of DroneShield, believes this is telling of where these types of technologies are heading. “Absolutely, the goal is always to take a capability and make it easier to use, more effective and cost-effective. Smaller, better and cheaper,” he said.
DroneShield’s hand-held countermeasures, such as its DroneGuns, provide a number of advantages. As a small and lightweight system, it is an easily transportable C-UAS capability that can be stowed in a vehicle, rucksack or body-work with a sling as the battlefield shifts. Powered by swappable batteries, DroneGuns are non-kinetic, utilizing an electronic attack method meaning that they can provide unlimited “rounds” which is more economical than kinetic systems and safer to operate with minimal training required.
In a similar fashion, other man-portable systems such as Fortem’s DroneHunters F700, present countries with a lower per-use cost alternative than other pricier systems on the market. On this, Brown points out that each shot of their weapon costs only a few hundred dollars, considerably cheaper than high-energy systems like Electro-Magnetic Pulse (laser) weapons, which also require extensive power source.
An additional benefit of the Fortem system for neutralizing drones is that the system can take them down in a controlled manner with a drogue parachute, allowing for reconnaissance and analysis of the enemy system as well as reducing collateral damage. This is in contrast to more conventional defensive techniques that can cause the hostile UAV to explode or fall from the sky, often damaging in the process civilians and infrastructure, or allowing it to return to its launch point with no potential study of its mission or where it came from.
Brown claims that in Fortem’s 5,000-plus documented captures, its solutions have a success rate of 92%. DroneHunters further deployed to protect multiple stadiums during the FIFA World Cup in Qatar. For DroneShield, McCrann says that their operational effectiveness have been high in both military and more traditional security environments, pointing to the recent instance where its DroneGun Tactical was used to neutralize 4 hovering drones during the presidential inauguration in Brazil.
Despite the advantages these systems offer, McCrann warns that shrinking any given capability generally involves one or several tradeoffs. “For electronic countermeasures, that (miniaturizing) tradeoff is usually seen in the total output power of the system where smaller may indicate its less effective range and the need to get in closer,” he explains. However, in a drone-on-drone scenario, such as with the DroneHunter or similar systems, that tradeoff of an electronic warfare payload might be acceptable because the engagement happens at close range anyway.
Elisabeth Gosselin-Malo is a Europe correspondent for Defense News. She covers a wide range of topics related to military procurement and international security, and specializes in reporting on the aviation sector. She is based in Milan, Italy.