Attack of the Drones
Drones are Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) or Remote Piloted Aerial Systems (RPAS). In other words, a flying object remotely controlled by a human being. The potential for drone technology has expanded way beyond the realms of the hobbyist. Drones have infiltrated many industries because of their still largely untapped ability to perform functions faster, more efficiently and at lower cost.
The global drone market is predicted to be worth $127 billion by 2020, according to PwC. UAV services are used in agriculture, insurance, media, energy and government. Drones also have applications in the military, law enforcement and security. For example, police and military patrols can use facial recognition algorithms to assess whether someone is an armed threat or a journalist brandishing a camera.
A lot of environments are remote or hostile, so a drone is the safest option. Places like the ocean or a war zone require drones in order to gain access to people in trouble quickly and safely. Fixed-wing drones are currently delivering vaccines, HIV and malaria medications, and medical supplies to 1,000 health facilities covering 10 million people in east Africa’s most remote places. A service that is containing to grow and expand worldwide.
On a commercial level, Domino’s pizza delivered the first pizza by drone in New Zealand, in November 2016, at a cost considerably lower than that incurred by a human driver of a car or scooter.
Chinese e-commerce giant JD have began delivering payloads of up to 30kg by drone and is testing UAVs that can haul as much as 1,000kg over 100 kilometres.
Meanwhile, Amazon is testing its Prime Air delivery program. With Prime Air delivery, drones will deliver packages weighing up to 2.6kg within 30 minutes in the UK. Amazon has filed a patent for beehive-like depots, which will one day be used to dispatch drone deliveries. The nine-storey facilities will be used to recharge and house drones.
NASA uses drones to track hurricane activity. The drones collect weather data like temperature, air pressure, and humidity, then send the data in real-time to the National Hurricane Centre in Florida, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and other organisations worldwide that forecast weather.
After Hurricane Harvey claimed the lives of at least 70 people and caused an estimated $100 billion in damage along the Texas coastline, the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) issued 137 airspace authorisations for drone-related recover efforts in the Houston area. A similar number of licenses (132) were issued by the FAA for drones in the Florida area shortly after Hurricane Irma battered the peninsula. Drones were deployed to triage repairs to bridges, roads, water-treatment plants and other key infrastructure, for search and rescue, surveillance, mapping, power restoration and media coverage.
An ambulance drone that carries a defibrillator was prototyped in 2014. The prototype reaches top speeds of 100 km/h, reaching patients within 12 square kilometres in less than one minute. The drone flies autonomously, locating the destination via GPS coordinates. There is a defibrillator built into the drone and an emergency operator can provide instructions on how to use it.
Researchers at the University of South Australia have developed drones that can remotely measure heart and breathing rates. Image-processing systems combined with algorithms allow the drones to detect vital signs in several people at once, while they are moving. The drones could be deployed in nursing homes, on hospital wards and in war zones.
At a recent hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, FBI Director Christopher Wray said he expects terrorists would be using unmanned aerial vehicles in attacks against the US “imminently”. Terrorists are already using drones for attacks in other countries. They have been used by terrorist organisations, such as the Islamic State, in Syria and Iraq. So according to the FBI Director, it is only a matter of time before they are used in the US.
Elaine Duke, acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, said the department had noticed an increase in the use of drones along border states. "They could be used for surveillance, or bringing in illicit materials or they could be used for violence."
Federal agencies are working on counter-measures, but the work is challenging because drones are relatively easy to acquire and operate, but their use can be hard to disrupt and monitor. Nicholas Rasmussen, director of the National Counter Terrorism Centre, said at the hearing, "there is a community of experts that has emerged inside the federal government that is focused on this pretty much full time. Two years ago, this was not a concern... We are trying to up our game."
Contraband in Prisons
Drones have become a major security problem in prisons and are increasingly used to smuggle in drugs, weapons, phones and other valuables.
In July 2016, the UK handed out its first ever jail sentence to an individual using a quadcopter to smuggle contraband into prison. Now, the government has announced the formation of a new specialist squad and counter drone system to stop drones flying over perimeter walls to drop contraband into jails.
The counter drone system creates a 600m shield around and above a prison that detects and deflects the remote-controlled devices. It uses a series of disruptors to jam the drone's computer, and block its frequency and control protocols. The operator's screen will shut down and the drone will be bounced back to where it came from.
Drone bans are already being enforced worldwide. A National Park service ban on drones was issued in the US in 2014. Last month, the FAA issued new regulations restricting unauthorised drone operations in over 10 Department of Interior sites:
- Statue of Liberty National Monument, New York
- Boston National Historical Park (U.S.S. Constitution), Boston
- Independence National Historical Park, Philadelphia
- Folsom Dam, Folsom, Calif.
- Glen Canyon Dam, Lake Powell, Ariz.
- Grand Coulee Dam, Grand Coulee, Wash.
- Hoover Dam, Boulder City, Nev.
- Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, St. Louis
- Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Keystone, S.D.
- Shasta Dam, Shasta Lake, Calif.
These regulations mark the first time the FAA has restricted drone flights over Interior Department landmarks.
Counter UAV solutions
Drones come with their many positives, and equally as many negatives. Either way, drones are here to stay. The FAA expects more than 400,000 commercial drones to be in use by 2021. Perhaps the biggest boost will come when UAVs have the capability to fly and perform tasks autonomously, such as carrying out repairs once 3D printing technologies advance.
With this rapid advancement in drone technology, counter drone technology is becoming a critical industry in itself. As is already the case, when drones are used by terrorists, begin to disrupt air traffic or are used to deliver illegal goods, these counter measures will need to come into place.