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Research into drone defense technology must continue

By Barry He | China Daily Global | Updated: 2022-08-12 09:33

A general view of Al Arabi Sports Complex Stadium which will be used for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022, Doha, Qatar, July 3, 2022. [Photo/Agencies]

With preparations for this winter's Qatar 2022 World Cup well underway, new technologies are being adopted to keep venues secure.

Drones provide a unique modern threat to public safety, whether it be negligent amateur flyers unwittingly flying into regulated airspace, unwelcome surveillance, or worse.

Methods to take down undesirable drone activity to protect a perimeter vary wildly. Hunter drones which carry nets will be a common sight at the Qatar World Cup. These methods range from long-range weapons on the ground to eagles being used alongside other birds of prey.

So-called drone hunters used in Qatar are autonomous interceptor drones guided by radar, which can tackle small consumer UAVs, such as the popular Mavics, by firing nets at them. Larger drones targeted would also trigger a parachute so that kilograms of metal do not hurtle down toward unsuspecting visitors on the ground. This radar system enables a comprehensive picture of the airspace far from stadium grounds, to nip issues in the bud before they become a threat.

An arms race is under way, as drones are increasingly used for sinister purposes and can be modified to be more maneuverable.

The near future could see even consumer drones exceeding speeds of 300 miles per hour, and when multiple swarms of the devices are used, defenses need to be strong.

Nature, however, has perfected aerial agility over millions of years, and the lateral movement and ability of drones to quickly change direction are no match for birds of prey. In the Netherlands, the use of eagles to take out suspicious UAVs has been tried out, but despite moderately successful test footage being released, the program has been discontinued.

Falcons have also been explored by military organizations around the world, with the peregrine falcon able to reach speeds of nearly 400 kilometers an hour. The risk of injury to birds from coming into contact motorized propellers has, however, become a major concern. Zoologists also claim that a danger to the public may also result from frustrated animals that are unable to make their catch, taking their frustration out by hunting other living things on the ground.

Radio frequency jammers have also been explored. These systems detect radio frequencies between the drone and its controller and can sever this link, rendering the device useless.

More advanced systems can even identify the model of the device along with MAC addresses that could identify the controller, vital for prosecution purposes. It is also possible to triangulate the drone and pilot to identify where they are for physical interception.

Problems emerge, however, when drones are automatically programmed to fly a certain route, blunting the technology's effectiveness in certain situations.

A sure-fire way to take down a drone is to use an electromagnetic pulse. These are capable of instantly disrupting an electronic device's circuitry through the powerful voltage it triggers. These can be fired from the ground and have a higher success ratio of nullifying a threat.

Collateral damage is a large risk with this method, however, as drones instantly turn into dead lumps of metal and crash down, potentially causing damage to property and life.

As the technology of consumer drones becomes more sophisticated and accessible, it is important that authorities invest in appropriate defensive measures to protect the public. Such investment will be vital in this arms race to protect our airspace from autonomous threats.

Barry He is a London-based columnist for China Daily.

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