Telecoms giant AT&T has partnered with San Francisco counter-drone startup Dedrone to develop a detection solution to protect military bases and other sensitive locations from what they describe as “malicious drones”.
The issue of drone misuse – pilots flying where they shouldn’t do or, in some cases, the weaponising of off-the-shelf models – has garnered public attention in recent months.
Criminals are using drones to smuggle contraband into prisons around the world; there are regular cases of drone pilots flying too close to manned aircraft, and the technology was recently deployed in an assassination attempt on the president of Venezuela.
In part, the risks are enabled by the same affordability and sophistication of consumer hardware that encourages startups to innovate with the technology.
In the popular press, such issues have tended to overshadow the many positive uses of drone technology, from search, rescue, and blue-light services, to critical infrastructure maintenance, agriculture, transport, and delivering life-saving medicines and blood supplies.
It doesn’t help that regulations are lagging behind: once a drone threat is determined, countering it in a legal manner isn’t always easy.
In the US, arguably, current laws effectively criminalise some counter-drone technologies, depending on the means used. For example, both the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and the Communications Act technically render illegal any countermeasures that use jamming or hacking, respectively.
And because drones are legally defined as aircraft by the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA), bringing them down by kinetic means is, theoretically, no different to downing any other plane, though it is unlikely that comparison would stand scrutiny in court.
The situation is complicated by the fact that more than one million drones have been registered in the US to date. Come Christmas and the holiday season, many thousands more will inevitably join them.
Cynical and sensible?
AT&T’s move to partner with an established counter-drone startup highlights the potential profitability of this market once these regulatory problems have been ironed out. It’s also the perfect time for a big name to position itself as the go-to counter-drone vendor.
The media attention and resulting fear of “malicious drones” outweighs the reality of the threat – even consumer drones are saving far more lives than they are taking, for example. But there’s no denying that risks exist, and any high-profile criminal use of aerial platforms to endanger lives could swing public opinion against this popular technology.
As such, Dedrone’s partnership with AT&T represents a win for both parties. AT&T gains a foothold in what could turn out to be a lucrative market, while Dedrone signs up a huge industry name to help attract new clients.
“Physical security and cybersecurity are equally important when safeguarding an entire ecosystem,” said Michael Zeto, VP and general manager of Smart Cities at AT&T.
“Malicious drones pose an aerial threat for the community, for businesses, and for the people that live and work there. With Dedrone, we’re helping to protect customers and citizens from this type of risk.”
Situational awareness rather than action
Dedrone has been hired by prisons, public utilities, and other organisations to help protect their airspace from drone incursions since 2014, and AT&T has been providing LTE connectivity for the system.
“AT&T provides a reliable platform for Dedrone customers to connect our technology to their security ecosystem, and use Dedrone analytics to understand their lower-airspace activity,” said Joerg Lamprecht, CEO and co-founder of Dedrone.
“Working with AT&T helps ensure that Dedrone technology is integrated into smart cities to prevent drone intrusions.”
Dedrone’s platform identifies nearby drones through radio frequency, visual, radar, and other sensor data. That information essentially provides situational awareness to security teams, enabling them to make informed decisions about what action to take.
The software system can be compared to DJI’s Aeroscope, which uses existing radio protocols to track the company’s drones, locate their pilots and put law enforcement officers in contact with them.
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The challenge facing both technology companies and policymakers is that these technologies are arguably undermined by the same flaw: situational awareness is only useful to an extent. It needs to be applied alongside active countermeasures, if malicious actors are to be stopped in their tracks.
Dedrone does offer active measures – from nets to lasers to EMP pulses – but again, these require regulatory approval for use and aren’t always the best solution to the dynamic threat that a weaponised drone could represent.
Either way, AT&T appears determined to enter the counter-drone industry and help provide an imperfect solution to a complex problem.