Drones entered the public conversation in an era of uncontested skies. Against fighters on the ground, drones were only occasionally vulnerable to infantry-carried anti-air missiles. Those weapons are rare, expensive, and while sometimes capable of destroying a drone, they are designed for other targets. But the days of hunting drones exclusively by missile are over, and this week brings us two stories that better reflect the existing counter-drone world.
U.S. officials confirmed to NBC news that Russia was jamming the signals of drones in Syria. From NBC’s report on April 10:
Russian jamming of drones was also reported in Ukraine, and continues to this day, as new tools knock commercial drones from the sky.
Jammers end any impunity drones once enjoyed, and while they’re not as threatening at attacks on people-carrying aircraft, it means drone flights are no longer without risk, and any intelligence gained from such an operation must be weighed against the possibility of losing the asset.
Counter drone tools are hardly just a battlefield concern. This week, IXI Technology donated a $30,000 “Drone Killer” to the police department of Oceanside, California. The blocky Drone Killer looks like a weapon straight out of Unreal Tournament, complete with G.I. Joe plastic casing and bullpup handles. It weighs 7.5 lbs, features two picatinny rail mounts, can detect drone signals at up to 2 miles, and can jam multiple drone frequencies at a range of 1300 feet.
The Drone Killer is one of 235 counter-drone products collected in a survey of the market by the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard University. The counter-drone market includes everything from directed-antenna jammers held like rifles to drones carrying nets to special software-defined radio ground stations, marketed at primarily customers in the military and in law enforcement. Here, both markets converge: as nonstate actors and militaries both buy and use commercial drones, the tools needed to stop drones on the battlefield and the tools needed to stop a drone outside a warzone are similar if not the same.
Depending on locality, counter-drone tools may be subject to anti-jamming legal constraints, like FCC rules limiting such devices generally and carrying constraints on who may be exempt from those rules. Yet the problems of jammers, the risk of one cutting off internet or radio or cell phone signals to civilians or other people in the area, are the same no matter if the conflict is one formally authorized by Congress or an encounter by a small city police department.
Questions of what to do with a jammed drone, of ways to navigate it safely down and possibly apprehend its pilot, and how to do it in the presence of civilians may have different answers depending on the context of the drone flight and who is doing the jamming. Yet the questions themselves will persist regardless of the context. The age of drones flying free in uncontested skies, at home or abroad, is over.
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.