Researchers show how to take out drones with loud noises

A team from South Korea's KAIST found that sound can disrupt gyroscopes commonly used on unmanned aerial vehicles.

The military’s extensive use of drones involves defending against a lot of factors, from potential cyber attacks to radio-frequency jamming other electronic warfare tactics. Now they might have one more thing to worry about: loud noises.

A group of South Korean researchers recently published a paper, titled “Rocking Drones with Intentional Sound Noise on Gyroscopic Sensors,” that describes just that: using loud noise—even in the audible range—to disrupt the gyroscopes that keep drones level, thereby taking them out of commission.

Researchers from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, or KAIST (whose robotics team recently won the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Robotics Challenge) wanted to test ways to upset the Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (MEMS) gyroscopes that stabilize unmanned aerial vehicles against wind and other influences.

They found that sounds that vibrate at the same frequencies as the gyroscopes could degrade the gyroscope’s performance. Although MEMS gyroscopes are designed to vibrate in the ultrasonic range, the research team found that at least several varieties also vibrate in the audible range and could be disrupted by directed sounds from a distance of about 120 feet.

These kinds of attacks might not be a common tactic any time soon, since they involve tracking the UAV and generating enough power to “fire” the sound. But the Defense Department, which is putting an emphasis on developing directed energy weapons like lasers, could consider adding it to its arsenal. DOD’s Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Program, in fact, is planning to test a noise gun, called the Laser-Induced Plasma Effect,  which is designed to emit extremely loud and disorienting pulses of noise.

The KAIST researchers will present their paper this week at the USENIC Security Symposium in Washington, D.C.