Shooting drones down over cities isn’t ideal. Nabbing them in midair is an intriguing alternative.
After an F-22 Raptor nearly collided with a cheap drone in 2017, the U.S. Air Force’s Air Combat Command received permission to shoot down unmanned flying objects that get too near its airbases. But shooting down drones over cities is a less-than-ideal solution to a growing problem. So the U.S. military is trying a new tack: spending millions of dollars on defensive drones armed with nets.
The Defense Innovation Unit, or DIU, is contracting with Utah-based Fortem Technologies for its SkyDome anti-drone system, which marries net-armed drones called DroneHunters with a radar system dubbed TrueView. While other anti-drone systems look for the radio signals that connect drones to their operators – and then try to jam or home in on them — SkyDome can discard the assumption that an incoming drone is emitting anything at all.
“It’s very easy to program a drone to fly completely autonomously. It can be done with a commercial, off-the-shelf drone,” Fortem’s CTO and co-founder Adam Robertson.
The SkyDome combines radar, sensors aboard the DroneHunters, and even other sensors. It’s an ensemble approach that mimics, somewhat, the way an animal or human might hunt in the wild, using a variety of data sources to make targeting determinations. “It allows us to take from any source all of the intelligence that’s available. We have ground-based radar systems that are excellent at detection,” Robertson said. “I have camera systems where I can use the radar to point a camera and look at things.”
Once the system detects something, SkyDome uses image recognition and AI to classify the object and its intent. “Is it a bird? Is it a drone? Is it a friendly drone or an unfriendly drone?” Robertson said. "It uses the intelligence gained from each of its sensors combined, much as your brain would, and makes a call and says, ‘that’s a threat.’”
Launched automatically upon detection or at a human’s command, the DroneHunter climbs to altitude and then uses onboard radar to track the enemy drone. Up in the air, there is very little to interfere with the DroneHunter’s ability to lock on target. “It can see these drones from hundreds of meters away,” said Robertson.
After snaring a drone in its net, the DroneHunter brings it back. Nabbing a drone out of the sky offers a few advantages over attempting to jam it or blowing it up. You avoid bringing laser-riddled drones crashing down on urban crowds. You don’t foul up cellular communications networks. And you get more out of forensic analysis, which can show who launched the drone and from where.
Robertson said the DIU contract was worth multiple millions of dollars, though he declined to specify further. DIU did not immediately respond to request for comment. Several combatant commands are interested, Robertson said.