Security at 20,000 Feet

Security at 20,000 Feet

“It is time to take a hard look at the drone security vertical to protect and safeguard your ‘friendly’ skies.”

For the sake of argument, let’s say you have a massive facility in a remote location that needs security. This kind of scenario is a very real possibility. As an owner/operator you would be looking for the best security available, including a layered perimeter solution.

You find an integrator who begins with the best products available, each able to communicate in an open platform. You are now secure.

Wait, Not So Fast

You might have overlooked that area directly overhead, the area that leads directly to your facility. It is more vulnerable than you might think. It is time to take a hard look at the drone security vertical to protect and safeguard your “friendly” skies.

“In the United States, drones have really taken off–from the enthusiasts who use them recreationally, to businesses that want to deploy them for package delivery,” said Dave Preece, chief data officer and vice president of marketing at Fortem Technologies. “In situations where medical and emergency services get bottlenecked on congested roads or when there are no roads, drones are the perfect solution.”

However, rules and regulations on these unmanned aerial vehicles and skyway highways are vague, and the number of aircrafts in the air make airspace extremely congested. Worldwide, there are more than 44,000 airplanes flying every day. Adding millions of drones to that number and you begin to understand the definition of overcrowded.

Drones are a bit unnerving by look and sound. Yes, they are as noisy as an airport. At a recent urban air mobility and airspace security session by the Utah Department of Transportation, Preece said the conversation grew intense as they discussed who exactly owned the airspace where drones might fly.

The fight for authority over this space ranges from private citizens monitoring around their homes, to cities, to state officials, even the FAA. The true owner hasn’t been clearly defined. Who, for example, controls the airspace above private property where privacy, safety and noise are a huge concern? One thing is certain, drones and those who engineer them mean business. Security business.

Friend or Foe

Not every drone is a friendly drone, and recent events show that bad actors can use these unmanned aircraft to do mass amounts of damage. Enter Fortem Technologies, a company in the business of rogue drone hunting. Their air security and defense platform and fleet of malicious drone interceptors has the ability to intercept and down a rogue drone within seconds.

During a routine test flight, Fortem blue team members set up a virtual fence/ no fly zone to defend a multi-million dollar moored yacht. A rogue attack drone was launched by the red team to fly around and attack the protected area. Once an incursion into that defined space was determined as a threat, the Fortem DroneHunter launched autonomously to pursue and track the rogue drone, streaming information from its airborne radar and optics into the SkyDome ground control screen. The controller on the ground watched the SkyDome monitor as the rogue drone circled the target. Suddenly, the attack drone moved in a little too close and the defender, DroneHunter, created by Fortem, launched into attack mode autonomously.

It didn’t attack all at once. Imagine the attack drone is like a football player who is the running back with the ball. The defender drone, DroneHunter, is similar to the middle linebacker who is patiently waiting for the ball carrier to commit to a (wrong) direction. All this is happening at 400 feet in the air.

With the rogue attack drone advancing across the virtual no-fly zone, the Drone- Hunter, programmed to defend the no-fly zone, takes immediate action and closes in on the rogue drone, tightening the distance between them autonomously and flying in lockstep with the attack drone’s every move with fighter jet precision.

The DroneHunter closes in, and when it gets within 20 feet of the attack drone (depending on wind speed, altitude and other factors), fires a 5x5 meter net at a 1000 psi and over 80mph strangling and neutralizing the unwanted drone. The defender drone then carries its prey back to a predetermined location, away from population, to be examined.

One last thing about drone capture. The netting that is fired at the rogue drone is relatively lightweight. You have to wonder how it is fired from the defender drone while remaining intact and able to hit the target precisely. The customizable undercarriage carries at least two nets, and can be configured for more or different types of effectors such as munitions and directed energy, depending on the situation and legal use. At each corner point of the netting, a “bullet” ensures the net stays open and focused on the malicious aircraft. The company is always testing for various scenarios and effectors with their blue/red teams, and has over 3,650 captures.

A five-foot predator drone hunter is able to carry up to a 30 pound load, and when captured, can easily drop it to a preassigned location. So, how much damage might a drone be able to inflict? On Aug. 4, 2018, two drones detonated explosives near Avenida Bolívar, Caracas, where Nicolás Maduro, the President of Venezuela, was addressing the Bolivarian National Guard in front of the Centro Simón Bolívar Towers and Palacio de Justicia de Caracas. The attack was an unsuccessful assassination attempt, as the payload of C4 explosives detonated early. It does, however, give an indication of how deadly a drone attack would be if executed to precision.

The Other Issues

There are other issues to be considered that are quite unnerving. Enthusiast drones are flown on a radio frequency (RF), and there are many RF-based counter drone systems that detect, identify, and even understand where the operator is. Some of these systems can jam the RF, rendering the aircraft useless and unable to reach their intended target(s).

“RF counter drone systems have a lot of limitations when rogue drones are programmed to fly RF-silent which is easy to achieve,” Preece said. “The Fortem SkyDome, TrueView and DroneHunter platform is radar based with lightweight ground and airborne radar designed and networked to see all ground or airborne objects, so it can’t be spoofed or blindsided by malicious drone operators. RF data is a great compliment to an airspace security and defense system - when RF is available to detect - but it is not foundational.”

According to Preece, Fortem has red and blue teams (many staffed by eager interns) that practice flying and detecting RF-silent drone missions every day so Fortem can stay ahead of this RF-silent threat. Configuring a waypoint driven RFSilent drone flight is not complicated and can be configured by anyone who owns a drone and has access to the internet.

“There is a mistaken belief that it takes a Ph.D. to configure a drone to fly RF-silent. To the contrary, it is as simple as watching a short YouTube video,” according to Adam Robertson the CTO of Fortem. ”The technology that the Fortem scientist and engineering teams are working on are world class and leading edge. We are making the airspace secure and safe so that drones can be trusted as useful tools to advance our civilization.”

If you are interested in what a drone attack might look like, take a look at an August 2019 movie, An Angel Has Fallen. The plot line is all about drones and the possibility of an attack. Preece said the theme of this movie is real, and it could happen again. Nicolás Maduro, the President of Venezuela, would tell you the same thing.

Also real is the robust deployment of the 5G network. Because of its nature, the use of the 5G network to fly a drone will make it extremely difficult to isolate, take over, and jam rogue drones.

Here is another example of how a drone could cause chaos: American football is a huge spectator sport in the United States, and football (soccer) is huge in many other countries. Stadiums are filled with cheering fans. Most stadiums are open and vulnerable to a drone attack. Even stadiums that have a roof also have an opening and are generally left open during a sporting event. Case in point: In November 2017, a man deployed a personal drone and dropped leaflets over Levi Stadium during a San Francisco 49ers vs. Oakland Raiders football game. While the man was charged with violating secure airspace, it was an eye opener that a drone incursion was easily made.

Cathy Lanier, the NFL senior vice president for security told a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee, “IN the two years that I have been at the NFL, we have observed a dramatic increase in the number of threats, incidents and incursions by drones.

“We are very fortunate that the drone over Levi Stadium dropped only leaflets,” Lanier said.

Unfortunately, there are those who would plan and coordinate such an attack. We’ve seen evil before and here is where a defender drone comes into play. A squadron of defenders would be placed around the perimeter of the stadium, ready to be launched on a moment’s notice, but how do they know an attack is imminent?

It is rather simple. Fortem’s SkyDome network is deployed around the stadium and will pick up an aerial object and relay that information to stadium command and control security center. The radar and AI-enabled software that enables detection, tracking, pursuit, observation, threat assessments and capture of the flying drones cannot be compromised, and adds a desperately needed security layer to the stadiums multi-layered security. The system works autonomously defending the stadiums airspace night and day and in good weather and bad, alerting security personnel on their mobile device when there is a potential threat.

Spying on the Corporate World

Drones are also used for corporate spying. Recently, an executive team holding a meeting on a higher floor of an office building witnessed a drone outside the window capturing information on the whiteboard presentation. The SkyDome network would have alerted security staff that an aircraft was in that immediate area.

Properly deployed, the air space around a facility can be just as secure as the ground perimeter.

“Fortem Technologies is engineering solutions to make the airspace around us secure and safe, so that the huge potential and upside of drones can be realized,” Preece said. “Collectively we have figured how to make ground transportation secure and safe, and we can do it in the air as well.”

This article originally appeared in the January / February 2020 issue of Security Today.

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