Militaries and law enforcement agencies are currently testing measures to neutralize flying drones and several different approaches are being evaluated, including the use of Patriot missiles and high-tech rifles that shoot radio signals.
Shooting drones out of the sky with a conventional weapon causes two major problems. First, it destroys the drone, which may need to be recovered for legal or forensic reasons. Second, a drone falling out of the sky could cause damage to property.
In the central Chinese city of Wuhan, police have been issued rifles that send out radio signals that send the drones into a controlled decent, sending them slowly to the ground without being destroyed. The rifles are able to bring the drones down by sending radio signals that are identical to the ones the drones use to talk to their control device, typically between the 2.4GHz and 5.8GHz frequency ranges.
During tests, Wuhan police were able to pull six drones out of the sky up to a kilometre away. The new technology doesn't come cheap, priced at about $36,000 per rifle.
The unauthorised use of drones has disturbed airport security in China, along with large-scale events, the Wuhan police have pointed out. A few months ago, a drone pilot in Hangzhou was charged with flying a drone too close to airliners, and three operators were recently arrested in Hong Kong for flying a drone over a racing event.
The recent tests staged by the Wuhan police were put on ahead of 2017 Wuhan Marathon, where aerial drones could threaten both spectators and participants.
The Chinese rifles are similar to ones developed by the US company DroneShield and a number of other civilian efforts are also currently underway to deal with the illegal operation of UAVs, including net-firing bazookas and birds of prey trained to grab them in flight.
While it probably won’t be a realistic countermeasure, one Western military has successfully shot down a small, commercial quadcopter with a $3 million Patriot missile, US Gen. David Perkins recently told a military symposium.
Patriot missiles are radar-guided, capable of travelling at five times the speed of sound and typically used to shoot down other ballistic missiles. They are currently stationed by the US military in 12 different countries including Germany, Israel, Japan and Saudi Arabia.
The Patriot test did reveal that the missile’s radar system was capable of identifying something as small as a quadcopter drone.
"That quadcopter that cost 200 bucks from Amazon.com did not stand a chance against a Patriot," Perkins said.
The test comes amidst reports of battlefield combatants attaching weapons to quadcopter drones. However, the massive cost disparity between the typical quadcopter and a Patriot missile is not only a disincentive for militaries, using the missiles for this purpose would actually be an incentive for others to start using more drones.
"In fact, if I'm the enemy, I'm thinking, 'Hey, I'm just gonna get on eBay and buy as many of these $300 quadcopters as I can and expend all the Patriot missiles out there',” Perkins said.
Speaking with BBC News, Justin Bronk, a researcher at the Royal United Services Institute, said the overkill of using a Patriot missile to shoo down a drone does emphasize the new challenge that militaries face in combating non-conventional combatants.
"It certainly exposes in very stark terms the challenge which militaries face in attempting to deal with the adaptation of cheap and readily available civilian technology with extremely expensive, high-end hardware designed for state-on-state warfare,” Bronk said.
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