Drones are quickly moving from exotic military technology to mass market gadget thanks to companies such as DJI and 3D Robotics, which sell small but sophisticated unmanned aircraft that nearly any amateur can pilot. But the rapid growth of the consumer drone market is also raising security and privacy concerns. An anti-nuclear protester just landed a drone bearing a spooky-looking radiation hazard symbol on the roof of the Japanese Prime Minister's office, for example (the drone gave off only small, non-harmful trace amounts of radiation). Earlier this year, another hobbyist pilot sent lawmakers in Washington DC panicking after accidentally crashing a drone on the lawn of the White House. The first major act of just happened to a billboard in New York.
So far, the threats from consumer drones have been more psychological than physical, but that hasn't stopped a handful of new businesses such as from stepping up to offer consumer drone detection and mitigation technologies. Even as the consumer drone industry is just beginning to take flight, its counterpart—what you might call the "anti-drone" industry— is hot on its trail.
Brian Hearing is the cofounder of DroneShield, a Washington DC-based startup whose signature product is a network of acoustic sensors designed to identify incoming consumer drones as far away as 1000 yards from their buzzing sounds alone, and then alert its customers to their presence via text message or email. "The first step is to just be aware and give you some warning," he says. Several other companies offer similar systems, but DroneShield was recently included as one of an array of heightened security measures at this year's , where drones were banned.
"A lot of police departments still don't really know what drones are," Hearing says. "Even if they do, they can be pretty reluctant to use new technology like ours. But I've got to give a lot of credit to the Boston Police Department. They were extremely knowledgeable and helpful."
DroneShield's core technology relies on off-the-shelf weatherproof microphones and Wi-Fi hotspots or cellular connections to transmit the acoustic data. This allows the company to more easily adapt it to a variety of environments. Depending on the number of sensors installed, the cost to DroneShield customers can range anywhere from $1,000 to more than $100,000. (In the case of the Boston Marathon, DroneShield set up 10 temporary sensors on light poles along the race routes for free.)
The software that crunches this data must isolate incoming drone noise from all other background noises and correctly identify it based on a library of available consumer drone models. "They really don't sound like anything else in the world," Hearing says of consumer drones.
The conversation about the potential threats posed by consumer drones has —especially as most models can't yet carry payloads much larger than two pounds yet. Still, Hearing argues that drones pose legitimate dangers that drone detection technologies like his can thwart.
"There has to be a drone collision at an airport at some point," Hearing says. "Either a drone will hit a plane and force it to turn around and land safely, or the plane will suffer a crash landing that could be much more deadly." For another example, he says that several drones could be programmed to deliver a collective payload of weaponized material — explosives or biological threats — to a specific area at once.
Thankfully, at this year's Boston Marathon. Hearing says the event was a success for DroneShield's system because it didn't result in any false alarms. "Too many false alarms and people turn your system off," he says.
Tracking and identifying drones where they're not supposed to be is one thing. The big question for the anti-drone industry is this: How would you even go about taking one down safely?
Right now, DroneShield is mulling one potential solution: small portable net guns that can purportedly nab drones within 50 feet, several of which the company had on hand at the Boston Marathon. "It's basically a flashlight that shoots out a net," Hearing explains.
However, Hearing is also careful to point out that the legalities and practicalities of taking down unwanted drones vary greatly depending on the airspace they're flying through. "Critical infrastructure like nuclear power plants can shoot [a drone] down with a shotgun; Secret Service and White House can jam it; there seems to be a happy medium of non-lethal beanbags or pellets." For individuals who spot unwanted drones on their property, the first order of business is always to call the police and, if the occasion calls for it, potentially seek charges for the operator under local privacy laws.
Yet any of these countermeasures can potentially be evaded. "A lot of people are disappointed that we don't have silver bullet to take down drones," he says. "But we come back and say, it's better to know that one is coming than to not know."
And plenty of people want to know. Since its following a successful crowdfunding campaing IndieGoGo, DroneShield has expanded its marketing to an eclectic variety of potential new customers, from celebrities to prisons to power plants to airports to sports stadiums, several of which have embraced the technology wholeheartedly.
There is already ample competition. DroneShield is up against fellow crowdfunded startups including in Oregon—which uses small networks to identify the radio signals of drone operators—as well as more mature rivals such as French company , which uses a similar type of acoustics technology for its Drone Detector product, but has been around since 2007. And of course, there's always the potential for even larger players, weapons contractors like , to begin offering scaled-down versions of their military-grade anti-drone products for use by businesses and individuals.
"Any defense contractor that's been working on drone countermeasures for decades and could come in and really change the game for us if they woke up to the fact that consumer drones are coming," Hearing says.
For now, at least, the anti-drone business is flying high.