Imagine the scenario. A quadcopter drone, rigged to carry a bomb, is headed for the White House, a major airport, or a packed school full of children. There’s no time to track down and arrest the person who either programmed its path or is directly piloting it. The most important thing to do is to get it out of the air as soon as possible, stopping it from ever reaching its target.
Just a few years back, such a scenario would have been limited to action movie fodder for Hollywood screenwriters. Although so-called “hunter-killer” drones have been used by the military since the turn of the millennium, these UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) were largely inaccessible to the general population. For better or worse, they were tools intended for warfare, used to conduct what French philosopher Grégoire Chamayou refers to, in his book A Theory of the Drone, as “remote war” or “war from a distance.”
This is patently no longer true. According to a recent Goldman Sachs report, consumer spending on drones will likely total around $17 billion worldwide by 2020. That’s a whole lot of drones, with virtually no oversight to stop them from being misused. Recent incidents such as the one in which a drone brought one of the U.K.’s biggest airports to a screeching standstill highlight the glaring vulnerabilities that exist in this space. Drones represent the ultimate tool for asymmetric guerrilla warfare, capable of letting single bad actors confound much larger, more sophisticated organizations.
“This is only the beginning,” Noam Kenig, CEO of drone-oriented defense company AerialX, told Digital Trends. “As drones get more portable and available, there’s a real risk of people using them for harm. You need some way to take them down.”
The magic bullet
AerialX, a six-year-old company based in Vancouver, Canada, believes that it’s come up with a magic bullet to stop incidents like this. Literally. Drawing on its expertise in areas like machine vision and unmanned aircraft, and combining that with its contacts in the defense world, AerialX has created a patent-pending solution called the DroneBullet.
The DroneBullet is described by Kenig as a “hybrid between a missile and a quadcopter.” It is, in essence, a kamikaze drone which looks like a miniature missile, but boasts the maneuverability of a quadcopter. With a takeoff weight of 910 grams, this pocket rocket has a four kilometer range and is able to reach speeds of up to 350 kilometers-per-hour in a dive attack. It’s designed to lock onto enemy drones and then doggedly pursue them; ultimately crashing into them and knocking them out of the sky.
“We started out developing our own drones,” Kenig said. “At a certain point, we realized that the industry had become crowded. We then started working on counter-drone technologies. One solution we started working on was the drone forensic toolkit, which lets people retrieve crashed drones and analyze their flight information. We’ve also worked on detection systems for drones. Finally, we started work on the DroneBullet.”
The DroneBullet is launched by hand. All an operator needs to do to deploy it is to identify a drone target in the sky and then let the DroneBullet take care of the rest. Packed into its relatively small form factor are a camera and various neural net-based components, which allow it to do the necessary onboard number crunching to calculate things like the optimal trajectory and flight path it needs to hit its foes.
“It can track objects autonomously and will even work out exactly where to hit its target, depending on its speed and whether [its target is] a quadcopter or fixed wing drone,” Kenig continued. “That could be from above, below, or from the side. It works out where the weak spot is and goes after it. If it sees a small drone like a Phantom, it will hit it full-force from below. If it’s a bigger target, it can change the attack mode and attack from above. That’s usually the most sensitive part for drones, where the GPS module and multiple exposed propellers are housed.”
Designed for military and law-enforcement
Unlike a conventional missile, the DroneBullet doesn’t pack any explosives. All its devastating power comes from the kinetic energy supplied by its impact. Should it survive its initial collision (something which certainly isn’t guaranteed), it possesses the ability to recalibrate in order to pursue a second target or return to the ground.
“It can operate in two types of scenario,” Kenig said. “It can be both a standalone system and also work with third-party detection systems. That means that it could be linked to radar or vision-based systems, and then deployed autonomously.”
Last year, AerialX demonstrated its creation for the United States Special Operations Command (USSOC). This trial was carried out at the Fort Bragg, North Carolina military base. “It involved showing the technology on various drones, from small-sized ones to much larger ones,” he said. “We demonstrated our DroneBullet’s capabilities to eliminate the aerial threats.”
Kenig said that the company has received purchase orders from both the military and law enforcement, in the U.S. and overseas. (It won’t, however, be available for consumer purchase — so abandon those dreams of using it to put paid to your annoying neighbor’s early Sunday drone flights!)
What else is out there?
AerialX isn’t alone in developing anti-drone technologies. While its approach is unique, other “hard and soft kill” solutions include an assortment of nets, jammers and even drones loaded with firearms. “Other solutions suffer from absurd requirements and complexity like massive costs, huge power draw, or the need for a highly trained UAS pilot,” Kenig maintained. “The DroneBullet has none of those shortfalls.”
The next step is to deploy the technology so that, should the worst happen, it can be called into service.
“I’m not talking about kids flying a DJI drone over an outside concert,” he said. “This is for situations in which you really need to take a drone down before it causes real damage. You don’t want to mess around with solutions that involve manually chasing drones with nets or things like that. You don’t have time for it. You want to be able to press a button and get rid of the threat immediately. This is what we’ve built.”