Aviation buffs (including me) have long held curiosity with Seattle’s skies, given the Emerald City’s proximity to Boeing’s facilities and several high-level military bases. But it was an evening dog walk when I experienced my first mini-swarm. We’d reached the neighborhood park when five ominous-looking red lights punched above the tree line and began executing high-speed maneuvers. Their school-of-fish movements were visually overwhelming.
These drones were benign, but the experience begs hard questions for superyacht owners, who have to deal with their fair share of the flying buzzards getting too close to the rigging or trying to sneak a peek at whoever’s sunbathing on the bow. Given the proliferation of low-cost, easy-to-fly drones and the eye-in-the-sky camera streams that they provide — not to mention their more nefarious capabilities and increasing payloads — drones are a progressively worrisome security issue. Some 22 million of them are expected to be flying worldwide by 2020, including in anchorages and over popular waterways.
“Countermeasures always prevail once the technology is on the market,” says Erik van Wilsum, Martek’s head of counter-unmanned aircraft systems. “But we’re always behind in a countering situation.”
Understanding how to combat drones starts with learning how they work. People pilot drones via radio frequencies (RF), using joysticklike controllers. The controllers let the drone operator see whatever the drone can see, with video streams sent back from the drone’s high-resolution camera. Drone manufacturers use different frequency bands to transmit the video streams (typically on the 5.8 gigahertz frequency band) while the controller sends its flight-control signals to the drone (typically on the 2.4 GHz band).
Electronically speaking, that makes most drones’ vulnerabilities their 2.4 GHz and 5.8 GHz transmissions, which can be discovered, identified, tracked, and electronically exploited using RF detectors and antennas.
Martek’s Anti-Drone System (MADS) — the world’s first marine-specific anti-drone system — is composed of two 70-by-75-centimeter (about 27.5-inch by 29.5-inch) radomes, a PC and a software interface. The detection dome passively discovers, identifies and tracks drones operating on 2.4 GHz and 5.8 GHz signals, while the defeat dome electronically neutralizes a drone’s ability to send and receive its 2.4 GHz control signals or transmit its 5.8 GHz video stream.
Both domes provide 360-by-180-degree coverage around and above a yacht, and MADS can detect, identify and track drones from distances greater than 3 miles. It can electronically defeat them at a range of roughly 3,280 feet.
“In the defeat dome, there are a lot of modules with antennas, and in the detection dome, there are omni- and directional-sensing modules with antennas,” van Wilsum says. “We’re aiming for the best base solution with a single [type of] sensor,” and customers can add other sensors (see sidebar).
MADS (call for pricing) automatically detects, identifies and tracks all drones within its range, and it offers user-configurable and escalating alarms.
“We [constantly] scan two frequencies, and we detect protocols and frequency hopping,” van Wilsum says. Users can update the MADS software yearly, so the system will recognize the latest drone models. Martek pays licensing fees to maintain subscriptions to common drone-control software that most manufacturers use. “We can detect if they hop frequencies, and we can follow,” he says.
When a drone is detected, MADS either automatically enforces an electronic exclusion zone around the superyacht, or it can prompt the owner to activate the defeat dome manually by pressing a red button. The defeat dome transmits signals that disrupt RF communications between the drone and its controller.
“We don’t interfere with the yacht’s other communications,” van Wilsum says. “We evoke the drone to go home by creating a busy network. … It’s legal and CE-approved.”
Unlike canister-fired nets or dogfighting drones, both of which are designed to engage drones one-on-one, MADS is a natural multitasker.
“It can stop a swarm,” he says, adding that swarming drones also typically operate on 2.4 GHz and 5.8 GHz frequency bands. “It doesn’t matter if it’s one or multiple drones. What happens to one will happen to them all.”
One known chink in MADS’ otherwise formidable anti-drone dome involves an operator commanding a drone to fly to a set of preprogrammed GPS waypoints and record video onto an internal SD card, eliminating in-flight RF communications. That problem, however, is rare, van Wilsum says, and it can be resolved by weighing anchor.
“Not many people use waypoints,” he says. “Ninety-nine percent of all drones use these two frequencies.”
Size is another consideration, as a MADS installation involves two 70-centimeter (27.5-inch) skyline-mounted domes. Martek says the MADS system is ideal for superyachts, but there is a portable unit with an accompanying Drone Disruptor Gun for privacy-loving yachtsmen with less waterline.
I wonder if it would work at the dog park back home in Seattle.