Army fast-tracks new man-packable counter-drone EW weapons

The Army’s Rapid Equipping Force is accelerating development of EW weapons to jam and disable enemy small drone threats.

The Army is accelerating development of new electronic warfare counter-drone technology to meet fast-emerging drone threats in combat.

ISIS and other potential U.S. rivals have quickly made use of available commercial small drone technology for both reconnaissance and attacks.  U.S. forces, in turn, are seeking more elaborate and effective counter-drone measures, and are looking to electronic warfare solutions to, among other things, destroy low-flying drones.

The Army’s Rapid Equipping Force and its Program Executive Office Missile and Space are currently working with industry to evaluate developmental prototypes and available technologies to fast-track EW weapons in response to an urgent request from U.S. Central Command.

"Theater has asked for a solution, so we are looking at what we can apply as an interim solution," Col. John Lanier Ward, director Army Rapid Equipping Force, told Defense Systems.

CACI, an industry tech developer that already has several operational new EW systems, is now pioneering a man-packable weapon able to give dismounted soldiers the ability to detect, identity and destroy attack drones.

This system, called BITS Electronic Attack Module (BEAM), can lock onto the particular frequency of a nearby enemy drone and, using a handheld device, geolocate and jam or destroy the attack.

Most current EW jammers use a wider jamming signal across a range of frequencies, whereas BEAM is configured to detect a specific single frequency used by an attacking drone – a solution particularly suited for urban or more populated combat areas.

This technology was recently used to destroy small quadcopter drones during an Army-industry test at Yuma Proving Grounds, Ariz.

“A crude jammer might be OK in the desert. Our technology is able to discern one frequency from another. It is built to bring that signal in and match it up with what we have in our library,” CACI Senior Program Manager Jared Alazar told Defense Systems in an interview.  “If you are in an environment that already has communications systems, you do not want to jam everything and possibly take out your own communications.”

While many of the details of this technology are not available for public discussion, Alazar did say the system uses software-defined radio, RF applications and a method known as Time Distance of Arrival (TDOA).

Also, by using a more targeted and pinpointed detection technology, BEAM is able to destroy enemy drones without emitting a signal so large that it gives away the position or point of origin, said Jerry Parker, CACI's senior vice president for EW.

“With our RF-based systems we look for specific systems in the air, so we are not just tracking everything in the environment,” Alazar added. “We specifically look for drones.”

Alazar did say the system uses passive detection and does have certain mitigation techniques
which are not available for discussion. The targeted nature of the detection system advances the technology beyond most current radar detection applications, which can have difficulty identifying low-flying drones and separating them from surrounding signals, he explained.

When operating BEAM, soldiers use a small handheld device such as an android smartphone-like system, to identify a particular enemy drone threat. The technology is able to distinguish “blue” or friendly drones from ones that are an enemy threat, Alazar said.   

BEAM utilizes high bandwidth waveforms as part of an extendable ad hoc relay mesh network to detect a particular type of drone and determine whether there is a handset nearby.

“It uses wave relays between each backpack. We have designed the system to find these specific frequencies, and when we do a mitigation technique, it is on those specific frequencies,” he said.

CACI also has operational vehicle-mounted and forward operating base applications of the technology, some of which are already in use.

Prototypes of the vehicle or ship-mounted variant, called Mobile Autonomous Counter-UAS Exploitation (MACE), are now being assessed by both Army and Navy developers. CACI is currently hardening MACE prototypes and plans to have a deployable system by next June.

“Also, the Navy wants it for ships and the Coast Guard is looking at it for small boats for littoral defense,” Alazar said.