The prevalence of IEDs in Afghanistan and Iraq, combined with their simplicity, resulted in these devices being difficult to detect and extremely deadly. During these campaigns unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs – ‘drones’) were also deployed against Coalition forces in some of their crudest forms

In the UK, when we think of a ‘drone’ we think of the commercially available units from electronics outlets, or professional photography units. Many of these drones use remote control via a dedicated remote, or a smartphone application.

As this often requires a radio or wireless connection of some sort, electronic countermeasures (ECM) can often be deployed and deny UAVs the ability to operate in an area. However, we have limited capability to detect drones as many fly lower than the current technology is capable of detecting.

The definition of a UAV is sketchy – with some sources citing a method of power as the distinction, while others suggest anything unmanned and flying is a UAV. The definition is unimportant, whether UAV, drone or balsa wood glider. It’s their potential to disrupt or cause damage that is a the common factor.

Exploding UAVs

The IED UAVs used in Afghanistan and Iraq included the makings of an IED, fixed to or built into the frame of the UAV, detonating on impact or with a timer.

They were often constructed from balsa wood or simple materials, rigged with explosives and often with no propulsion – effectively a glider. They were launched from simple catapult systems or simply ‘thrown’ into the air.

These crude devices were by no means accurate, as they could not be controlled mid-flight, but their crudeness made them a deadly, indiscriminate aerial IED platform against which traditional defences cannot be used.

Directing the funding

In the wake of Gatwick, multi-million pound funding has been offered by the UK Government to develop suitable anti-drone technology. Much of the attention focuses on pinpointing ECM to a specific drone – where current technology blankets an area or region.

Blanketing an area with ECM is preferable where drone swarms or multiple units are deployed against a target. However, as explained previously, this only works where the UAV is sophisticated enough to include electronics in the first place.

The funding may be better allocated to carry out research into detection rather than ECM. Detecting these small, light, low-signature UAVs is the real cause of concern. Being able to detect, pinpoint the location, or track movement is certainly of greater benefit than throwing up ECM – which will not affect a number of the most effective UAVs.

Jamming the drones

ECM is the means by which to disrupt or confuse a radar, sonar or other system such as infrared or laser. Communications ECM includes radio frequency (RF) and electromagnetic (EM) interruption along with other forms of ‘jamming’.

This form of ECM is designed to degrade the link between the two points rendering the connection useless – and therefore the remote device is no longer controllable or returns to source. Communication ECM has an effective radius or is aimed directly at the device, where an operator wants to isolate the RF link and prevent communication with the device.

Evading ECM

Creating uncontrolled drones of such simple design not only makes them impervious to ECM products but also low cost and easily concealed. This is due to their being almost undetectable by most scanning and ECM systems, thanks to their low EM signature.

Drones which follow waypoints or pre-programmed routes are also being deployed increasingly often. These are ‘single-mission’ drones intended to complete a task and then simply run out of power or land. While some of these drones have rudimentary programming to enable GPS or navigation aids, sophisticated shielding designs to limit or prevent ECM interruption are openly available online.

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Airborne CBRNE

Continuing to focus on Gatwick, what if the drones had a more sinister purpose, such as carrying explosives or CBRN agents? What if the drones were a distraction against a terror attack against the airport terminals and the thousands of people now stranded within? Syria, Israel and Pakistan have all recorded sightings or uses of uncontrolled drones or UAVs. Those deployed in Syria against the population are thought to have involved chemical agents, making these, in effect, CBRN drones.

The technology in commercially available drones is improving each month. The payload capacity is increasing, which widens the scope of deployment from parcel delivery to deployment of sarin onto thousands of people.

Wake-up call

The direct cost on policing the Gatwick incidents has been reported as £419,000. This includes overtime, specialist equipment and assistance from other forces, including Cambridge and Essex. In addition to this, the estimated cost to airlines during the 36-hour lock down exceeded £50 million.

The international press coverage highlighted how unprepared the UK and many nations are in terms of UAVs and detection, deterrence and management of such a scenario.

Gatwick was a sharp wake-up call for the authorities. However, airports are not the only, or even the most lucrative, target. Large sporting events and public gatherings offer even greater opportunity for disruption, terror or harm. An English Premier League football match can attract 40,000 fans. In the US, assessments have been carried out to understand the impact of drones at American Football games, with 256 events in the
2019 calendar each attracting up to 75,000 fans.

The danger of drones or any unmanned aerial vehicle hinges on our concentrating efforts on developing ECM and throw-up an ECM curtain around critical infrastructure such as airports, but the method of delivery will simply go back to basics. Floating an explosive-laden balloon over a security post in Israel is such an example.

So, how will ECM be effective against drones or other UAVs? Available products include nets, directed pulses of energy, and widespread ECM with a range of up to 9 km. However, many of these would be useless against simple, uncontrolled UAVs and swarm scenarios. These drones are not externally controlled, neither do they contain shielding to prevent ECMs having any effect. Furthermore, the effect of widespread ECM can cause other RF and EM-sensitive products and services to fail or act erratically.

Drones and UAVs are an increasing security threat. This is not new – unmanned platforms have been deployed against security forces overseas for decades. The real danger is focusing too greatly on developing complicated ECM platforms while simpler UAVs remain highly effective.

Peter Lashbrook is the founder of PELA Systems and designer of the Patented PELAmesh range. PELA Systems design and manufacture remote scene assessment and sensor integration platforms for field deployment and infrastructure applications worldwide.