Jamming a signal is only effective if the signal is important. As militaries develop more autonomous machines, finding an answer in the kinetic, instead of the electromagnetic, spectrum will become the order of the day. That’s true for expensive flying machines and ground vehicles, and it’s also true for cheaper, commercial platforms, like autonomous quadcopters.
Enter the drone interceptors.
The drone mitigation market includes everything from eagles to net guns, but a lot of recent focus has been on jammers that put interference between the drone and either its pilot or the GPS signals upon which the drone relies. An alternative approach, demonstrated in a video by AerialX, is to simply launch another drone on a collision course with the target and trust that the impact will clear the target robot out of the sky.
Dubbed “DroneBullet,” AerialX’s interceptor is a rocket-shaped quadcopter, whose four small rotors jut out from the main body. Onboard deep learning and visual processing allow the DroneBullet to track its target in flight and plot an impact, trusting that the robustness of the DroneBullet’s body makes it come out fine on the other end. If the DroneBullet stabilizes, it can even descend under its own power, landing like a tailsitter.
While AerialX has other counter-UAS products, the DroneBullet is currently marketed in stealth mode, though it’s a stealth mode that allowed nearly 30,000 views of a demonstration on YouTube.
DroneBullet is hardly the only kinetic interceptor we’ve seen. In April, a Russian team released a video of what appeared to be a rocket-shaped, rotor-powered drone intercepting a quadcopter, though that release included no information on how the interceptor tracked its target. In 2015, a French company skipped the specialized drone body and instead demonstrated a standard commercial quadcopter programmed to file a collision course with a larger drone.
The dedicated kinetic drone interceptors offer a few insights into what the future of countering drones may look like. The first and perhaps most obvious is that drones allow a range of airframes that would never have been attempted with humans on board. Ramming is a viable tactic in a way that could have proved likely fatal in an earlier age of aviation.
The second lesson is that, as vehicles move toward autonomy to avoid jamming or electromagnetic interference, they’re still vulnerable to attacks from vectors that don’t depend on disabling the signal. Autonomous threats will lead to new countermeasures.
Finally, the counter-drone market is hardly a settled scene. And so long as the primary low-end threat remains a hobbyist toy converted to malicious purposes, there will likely remain a multitude of low-cost ways to disable it.
Watch a video of the DroneBullet below:
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.