By AeroDefense on May 09, 2024

Military Drone Detection: How the U.S. Armed Forces are Combating Drone Threats

The US military has recognized the threat from small drones, often referred to as sUAS (small un-crewed aircraft systems), for several years now. In 2021 Marine General Kenneth McKenzie, CENTCOM leader, said small, cheap sUAS were the “most concerning tactical development” since the rise of the Improvised Explosive Device (IED). 

From the threat of clueless/careless pilots flying over an Air Force base risking collision with other aircraft to sUAS with explosives being dropped on a target, the dangers are here and now, and military drone detection technology continues to rapidly improve. You may have heard the phrase “army of drones” in the context of the Ukraine/Russia conflict. Both sides have demonstrated tremendous success using sUAS for surveillance and explosive payloads in combat. 

The Growing Threat from Above

Free Helicopters in the Sky Stock Photo

Not all sUAS threats come against the military in foreign states or in conflict zones. The United States and other governments are reporting increased numbers of unauthorized sUAS traveling through restricted airspace over military bases and government installations. Although most of these incidents can be blamed on clueless sUAS pilots unaware of restrictions, they are not all benign.

Unaware pilots who fly their sUAS in the path of aircraft or aerial equipment at a military base risk damage and possibly death to not only pilots but to those on the ground. Mike Canada, head of the Un-crewed Aerial Vehicle (UAV) program at Prescott’s Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, said this of the threat unauthorized sUAS pose to pilots specifically “I think it’s akin to a bird strike. I mean, you hit it at the right place on the fuselage or the cockpit area, yeah, you could bring down the aircraft.”

Adversary sUAS pilots use sUAS to track troop movement, study tactics, and drop explosives.

One solution the government and military have adopted is the detection and tracking of unauthorized sUAS and their pilots. To achieve this they have turned to using purpose-built military drone/sUAS detection systems that utilize a variety of technologies and tactics, such as RF sensing, to quickly detect sUAS and alert personnel.

sUAS detection systems are a reliable way to help thwart the threat, but it is also worth noting the need for the United States Department of Defense (DOD) to fight differently to keep a step ahead of rapidly advancing sUAS technology and nefarious actors. For example, DJI recently made a move to encrypt their UAV signals making its sUAS detection product obsolete without the addition of a USB dongle. Furthermore, some sUAS detection systems are limited by product libraries which leaves a gap in defenses. If a sUAS detection system does not innovate and protect against things like spoofing, criminals will find gaps in the coverage. 

Personnel on the Move 

Protection of government and military installations is vitally important, but ultimately it is the personnel that matter the most, and personnel are not stagnant. Government officials and military troops are constantly on the move inside and outside of their installations. The area of protection can change at a moment’s notice which highlights the need for mobile defenses

Military drone detection systems are often extremely large, heavy, and expensive. Some look like the picture above, requiring an entire vehicle to be devoted to carrying them. This removes any element of discreteness and draws attention which traveling personnel greatly want to avoid. 

Another complication to mobility is the need for internet connection when setting up a system. This is why it’s important to consider all use cases when evaluating sUAS detection systems.You may need a system that can operate via mesh network.

There are products on the market that solve these issues. Priced at much less, much more discrete, and solving the set-up internet issue, these products condense what takes the military an entire truck load into a small package that can be installed on any size vehicle, boat, or other transportation device.   

Legal Landscape of Drone Detection Systems 

You may think the US military can use any drone/sUAS detection system they want any time, any where. Since 2018, government organizations including the DOD have had to apply for waivers allowing them to “crack the packet” or use mitigation systems. This means that these government departments were allowed to go around the Wiretap Act, the Pen/Trap Statute, and other laws governing the interference with sUAS. The process to obtain these waivers is rather time consuming, and a new waiver must be obtained when the sUAS detection system is moved from one location to another . 

These waivers are set to expire on October 1st, 2024 per the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2024. There are many questions as to the future and if there will be expansion of these waivers to more recipients.

Government recognizes the need to regulate commercial sUAS technology but legislation often takes much longer than needed. Most recently, the FAA announced that all sUAS are required to have a Remote ID, similar to the unique number registered to airplanes. This can help monitor sUAS activity and track down those responsible for illegal sUAS use. 

But is Remote ID too little too late? A large issue, and the key reason the DOD thinks Remote ID is inadequate as a sole solution in high risk situations like combat, is that enforcement of adding Remote ID to all sUAS made before the law was enacted is a monumental task. For that reason alone, military and government agencies are not relying only on Remote ID. Rather, they are adopting multi-layered systems including other forms of detection such as spectrum sensing or radar.

Published by AeroDefense May 9, 2024