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Airspace Security At A Glance: Emerging Trends in the Counter-Drone Space

Q&A with Dedrone CEO, AD Devarakonda

Aaditya “AD” Devarakonda is the CEO of airspace security company, Dedrone. Visit Dedrone on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Contact [email protected] for more information on how to get started with your complete airspace security program.

Even with shutdowns related to COVID-19, we are still seeing news reports of drones coming to airports, stadiums, and other critical infrastructure. How has airspace security changed in the wake of COVID-19?

COVID shutdowns accelerated use-cases for drones, and with more drones in the skies, come more exposed vulnerabilities. The airspace security market, two years ago, was in its infancy. Today, Dedrone customers are all around the world and reporting back through their datasets that they are seeing nearly over 100% increase in unauthorized drone activity at the start of the COVID-19 shutdowns beginning in March. This might be as simple as, this past summer, drone pilots were sitting at home, bored, and wanted to take drones out to capture footage of the world as we sheltered in place. Drones have always been able to go where you cannot go by yourself. This was the truth before COVID, and it is accentuated even more now.

For example, we are seeing news alerts of drones coming to stadiums to observe MLB games, and more alarmingly, drones continue to fly near disaster sites, such as wildfire or hurricane response zones. Even if it seems like there is no harm done, these drone flights may be violating federal airspace regulations, copyright and IP laws, and also common sense. Airspace security technology is designed to detect, classify, localize the drone, and help security teams stay ahead of any threats to their operations and airspace.

What’s changed in the past year, around what drones are doing in the security space?

Drones are becoming more readily available on the commercial market and more attractive to buy. They are less expensive, able to fly longer, and with greater payloads. Additionally, the drone market is shifting and while DJI remains the market leader, both US sourced and other global brands are coming in to disrupt the market. In the next few years, drone detection technology will have to adapt to this change in the drone landscape and capture the true nature of all drone activity, regardless of the make or model. More organizations are looking to bring drones on as a part of their security team – to help with surveillance, site inspection, or inventory. Still, security teams must also be aware of how to differentiate the drones that are a part of their program, ensure compliance with local, state, or federal laws, and then expose an unauthorized or hostile drone in their area. With the growth of the drone market and the increased savviness of drone pilots, security teams need to be able to detect multiple different drone brands and not just from GPS signals; they must be open to a multi-layered security solution to ensure security.

Counter-drone technology is a broad term covering many solutions – how can we narrow down what an organization needs to implement to protect people and assets from drones?

In order to address airspace risk, organizations first need to shift their mindset from focusing purely on the counter-drone technology, to what they truly need to achieve complete airspace security. Foundational drone detection systems will help security teams understand what drones are in their airspace, and from there, they will know what they need to protect their organization against. The biggest challenge for security providers when it comes to airspace security is understanding their threat level. Companies first need to build a full airspace security strategy, and that begins with quantifying their airspace activity – when, how often, and what drones are entering your airspace. From there, security providers will then want to ask more questions, such as observing the actual drone, and seeing what it is doing and where it is flying.

Can counter-drone technology impact a broader intelligence or security program?

Security providers are operationalizing airspace security into existing infrastructure. Airspace security technology provides the tools needed for situational awareness during a drone incident, and the intelligence to help security teams decide how to integrate airspace security protocols into existing SOPs. Security teams can respond appropriately to the drone threat. This could include changes in shift rotations, shipping and receiving hours, or making sure critical meetings, research and development, and VIP guests have an additional cover or obstructed views. Without a lower airspace risk assessment and the associated intelligence, security leaders will not be able to model their organization’s risk accurately, and therefore, prevent incursions and losses.

Laws and regulations around counter-drone technology are starting to take shape – what should GSX+ attendees look for in the coming months from regulators?

There are laws and regulations being developed across the United States that promote the safe integration of drones into the national airspace. Dedrone helps regulators understand the data behind drone activity – how many flights are not registered, unwanted, or otherwise a threat. The FAA is doing a tremendous job with creating drone registration programs and building awareness of safe flights in this nascent market. Dedrone’s drone detection technology is designed for use in accordance with U.S. federal law. Today, many federal departments and agencies have taken tremendous effort to address how drones are an immediate help, as well as an immediate threat to safety.

The biggest issue we should track on for this year and early 2021 is how the FAA manages the logistics and general lower airspace traffic. The FAA will be responsible for creating and managing a comprehensive unmanned traffic management framework, which will be the backbone of monitoring lower airspace activity. With drone detection systems, organizations like the FAA can quantify drone traffic, whether or not it is authorized or non-compliant, and ensure compliance with FAA drone registration programs, such as Remote ID.

What key use cases and industry verticals are you seeing leading in the adoption of counter-drone technology?

  1. Federal governments and agencies, especially departments tasked with protecting sensitive airspace or large areas of land, like around a border. Airspace threats near military operations are an ongoing issue. More federal governments are looking beyond systems that will detect a single drone and focus on advanced detection technologies to identify drone swarms.
  1. Airports are quickly adopting counter-drone technology as an extension of their existing airspace security systems. The 2018 Gatwick shutdown triggered significant regulatory action in the U.K. to accelerate the adoption of drone detection technology. The U.S. hasn’t experienced a major shutdown at the scale of what happened at Gatwick, but the issue of drones persists, even with some of the most highly protected aircraft, like recently when a drone was spotted near Air Force One. Airport airspace must continue to be protected, and airports can begin with vulnerability assessments to diagnose their drone activity, and then create airspace security programs based on data and analytics. By building this situational awareness first, airports can be more strategic with their counter-operations to prevent and protect against drone incursions. For example, Dedrone works with Newcastle International Airport and other U.K. airports.
  1. Correctional facilities face a persistent, escalating threat of contraband delivery by drones. Drones can easily bypass the most sophisticated security installations by simply flying over the top into a facility. Airspace security technology closes the opportunity gap for contraband delivery. Correctional facilities receive valuable data on drone activities on the site, for example, the number of drone intrusions, times, drone models, and recurring drones and flightpaths.
  1. Stadiums, even amid the COVID-era shutdowns, still experience drone incursions. When the lights are out, a drone might not be anything more than a nuisance or surveillance threat. On game day or when stadiums are in full operation, and security managers are responsible for the safety of thousands of people, a single drone can cause significant disruption and harm. Drones at stadiums can cause game delays, can pose a physical risk if it crashes, and there have been incidents where drones have dropped pamphlets into stadiums and stream live footage, violating broadcast rights.
  1. Critical infrastructure, including ports, oil and gas refineries, energy plants, and nuclear facilities, all have effective security systems to prevent damage. Yet, each of these verticals experiences drone intrusions. Recently, investigative journalists unveiled a series of drone incursions at the Palo Verde nuclear power plant – more information needs to be collected on unwanted airspace at critical infrastructure to ensure these sites have full protection against hostile surveillance.

For GSX+ dealers and integrators who want to get involved with counter-drone technology – how can they educate themselves about the latest in counter-drone technology, so they can offer airspace security services? They are already in the right place – GSX+ has created great opportunities for everyone to review the latest in counter-drone technology and assess for themselves. Check out some of the drone-related sessions taking place at GSX+ this 21-25 September.

The critical part is for integrators to understand what works and what doesn’t work. Can a technology provider make a promise they stand behind? Is the technology provider cognizant of the broader landscape of drones, have an understanding of how the drone market is evolving, and how their technology is advancing to address current and future threats? We always advise anyone looking at counter-drone technology to consider the problem of airspace security and look a few years forward to see if it will still work in a few years. The cost of switching may be more in the future.