C-UAS philosophy and needs dictate system advancements
In the counter-unmanned aerial system (C-UAS) arena, the threats they are designed to mitigate depend heavily on the market for which they are intended. A back-and-forth between UAS advancements and growth in the C-UAS industry dictate to manufacturers what these systems need and how much funding it will take to get them there. What is apparent, however, is autonomous aircraft are becoming more ubiquitous in both military and commercial markets, and along with that so are the systems required to counter them.
While a “silver bullet” counter-unmanned aerial system (C-UAS) is still far in the future, this reality hasn’t prevented manufacturers from developing philosophies that are tailored to their customers’ needs when faced with an adversarial unmanned aerial system (UAS). The UAS is one of the few platforms that span both commercial and military markets, creating an array of threats to be posed and solved.
At the core of current C-UAS advancements remains the concept of “countering the countermeasure”: UAS and drone designers see it as a push to make their products harder to detect, trace, and destroy, which then results in a reflexive reaction by C-UAS manufacturers to keep with the pace of threat.
UASs, both military and commercial, are designed with the capability to be used for good just as much as they can be used in an adversarial situation. Preventing a UAS from livestreaming a sports event at an open-air stadium is as valid a use for C-UAS systems as preventing a potentially lethal UAS swarm in combat.
With varying threats comes contrasting ways to handle them. Detection and mitigation of UASs and drones through C-UAS systems is a significant consideration for manufacturers when designing to meet user needs, especially when considering which capabilities these systems will need.
When to detect and when to mitigate
“The essential requirement for drone mitigation or counter-drone engagement is the ability to point the ‘effector’, whether that is a jammer, gun, projectile net, or interceptor drone, in the exact direction of the intruder drone,” says Mark Radford, cofounder and CTO of Blighter Surveillance Systems (Great Chesterford, U.K.). “This requires a greater capability in the sensor or sensor system to provide 3D coordinates of the target, including range, azimuth, elevation, and direction of travel.” (Figure 1.)
In the commercial realm, C-UAS systems are primarily tasked with detection, primarily due to complications that arise from restrictions associated with urban, civilian-populated areas. Prisons, airports, and sports stadiums are entities often involved in the C-UAS market; in contrast, those used in the military often involve imminent aerial attack or troop threat.
“From a military side, their current threat has been asymmetric warfare,” says Mike Blades, vice president of aerospace, defense, and security at market research firm Frost and Sullivan (San Antonio, Texas). “Say someone buys an $800 drone, puts a homemade bomb on it that they got the materials for themselves, and then, using a $1,000 to $1,200 drone, blows up a $20 million tank. It basically ends up being an airborne IED [improvised explosive device].”
An improvised IED is an example of a threat that a C-UAS would need to mitigate, while a drone flying over a prison with a payload of cellphones and illegal drugs is an example of a detection application. The Gatwick and Heathrow airport incidents of 2018 and 2019, respectively, emphasize the unease that a mere sighting of a drone can cause, guiding manufacturers to design commercial C-UAS systems with robust radar-detection capabilities. In the military realm, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) is in the market for more lethal approaches (Figure 2) that may include radar and electronic warfare (EW) applications.
“Drones are being used in many ways, from ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] missions to direct assaults like we saw with the Saudi oil field attacks,” says Bill Kramer, assistant vice president of C-UAS programs at SRC (Syracuse, N.Y.). “The big issue is that anyone can buy an inexpensive drone and use it for nefarious purposes with very little effort. This is compounded by drone technology that is advancing at a rapid rate, enabling drones to carry larger payloads, fly longer, and navigate without the aid of GPS guidance.”
These types of threats are actually providing the outline for C-UAS advancements. As UAS and drone makers forge ahead with stealthier, faster, and harder-to-detect products, C-UAS manufacturers are tasked with getting creative in their countermeasures – end users just have to know what to ask for.
What C-UAS customers are looking for
Most C-UAS design can be reduced down to radio frequency (RF), radar, and available reaction time. If the end user knows that most adversarial UASs and drones in their area will be attached to a ground-control station, then the system should focus on RF. If the customer knows that threats are coming from UASs and drones that are sent off on wave points without a connection between a controller, then a radar-based system would be more effective.
“Both military and commercial customers don’t know what they want, but they will know it when they see it. This isn’t a facetious statement,” says Michael Carter, CEO of IXI Technology (Yorba Linda, California). “The U.S. Army has been designated as the lead in the development of C-UAS requirements, but there has been no release of a requirements document yet. Systems range from RF, radar, lasers, acoustic, kinetic, optical, or combinations of these, but no one system can meet all users’ needs.” (Figure 3.)
Not only is it difficult for a system to meet all of an end user’s needs, but the speed at which UASs and drones have advanced resulted in a challenging timeline for C-UAS systems to reach deployment. According to Kramer, current fielded systems were deployed under “urgency” requirements to expedite the capabilities to warfighters: With no time to train operators, systems that demonstrate an ease of use have since become a significant trend in the industry.
Innovative C-UAS technologies that reference other trending military customer requirements include no-fly zones, artificial intelligence (AI) integration, wearable capabilities, handheld drone guns (Figure 4), and sensor and data fusion, all with a focus on avoiding and defeating drone swarms.
“On the military side, we’re seeing a lot of testing and research and development going into swarm countermeasures because you want to have the capability to knock out a bunch of drones at the same time,” Blades says. “So you’ll see more things like kinetic mitigation, where you fly a drone into another drone and destroy it; and microwaves, where microwaves just fry all of the electronics in there and you can’t fly it. Lasers, too. As long as you have power, you have ammo.”
As exciting as these novel technologies are, one of the primary obstacles that both C-UAS and UAS and drone advancements have in common are the government-mandated regulations and restrictions in place to prevent potentially dangerous air traffic and collateral damage.
Regulating military and commercial C-UAS advancements
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) act as the primary regulatory entities of both UAS and C-UAS operation, with a heavy focus on commercial use. Licensing, frequency protocols, and traffic management are some of the methods by which these governing bodies control rogue and potentially dangerous drone use.
“The biggest challenge I see in the coming years is that our skies will fill with drones as their commercial use becomes ubiquitous.” Radford says. “Examples include home deliveries, medical shipments, farming, and potentially air taxis. These legal commercial services will have to be operated within managed airspace, with the term ‘Unified Traffic Management’ (UTM), where manned aircraft mix with unmanned aircraft including drones.”
Radford goes on to explain that, commercially, all UASs will have to become conspicuous: Specifying identification, flight path, and position may very well become a minimum requirement for drone operators and C-UAS efforts, as the jamming and demodulation capabilities available to the military are far more restricted in the commercial sector.
“There are companies that are really succeeding with identifying frequencies because you don’t have to get in the signal and demodulate it. There’s a lot of gray area there, because there are many different opinions,” Blades says. “If you demodulate the signal, but you’re not blocking it, are you interfering with it? There’s no doubt about interfering if you’re trying to jam a signal. So these drone companies are constantly changing with new frequency protocols.”
IXI’s Carter claims that the large and expensive radar, laser, and optics systems can keep pace with technologically robust UASs and drones, but noted that the many limitations to these systems – including who can use them and where – remain in consideration when manufacturing them.
“The issue of need versus the ability to buy and deploy is compounded because of regulatory requirements for the commercial sector, and in some cases, military applications,” Carter says. “For example, the commercial sector can purchase systems that detect [UASs], but cannot purchase any system that interdicts a [UAS]. Moreover, FCC and FAA regulations prohibit the use of interdiction systems by commercial users. In most cases this includes law enforcement. Even military users must comply with many, if not all, of the same requirements while on U.S. soil.”
In a foreign theater of war, however, C-UAS regulations and restrictions can be less stringent for the UAS. According to Kramer, the DoD is processing a complete assessment of C-UAS capabilities fielded under urgency requirements to develop regulations for C-UAS solutions. Once finalized, the findings will determine the direction of military funding.
C-UAS funding dominates DoD spending
“Globally, right now, I have about a 25% CAGR [compound annual growth rate] through 2024. A lot of that is driven by militaries that require C-UAS catching up with what the U.S. is doing,” Blades says. “Maybe a lot of that even being purchasing C-UAS systems through foreign military sales. If you look at just commercial, it’s a very small percentage of the overall. The report I put out last year has about 20% on the commercial side and 80% for defense.”
The military is looking for C-UAS systems that are quick to mount, easy to operate, and effective. The speed at which UASs are advancing has therefore pushed the DoD to shell out significant portions of the defense budget for C-UAS research and development.
“In 2019, 70% to 80% of military spending was allocated to research and development for C-UAS systems. A lot of companies came in and tested their systems in different locations,” Blades says. “Most of the companies you see that are successful have demonstrated some sort of a capability. Basically, any system that has been able to go through a military proof of concept and has shown that they actually work – those are the ones that are doing well.”
Currently, that’s the primary goal for C-UAS systems – to work as promoted. The speed at which increasing numbers of C-UAS systems are needed is driving growth in the industry, and manufacturers are in fact taking advantage of the demand by joining forces.
“There’s a lot of collaboration in the market,” Blades says. “There are not a lot of companies that make all of the different sensors that go onto a C-UAS. Most of the defense companies either integrate, or they have one system of their own and integrate things from other people. There’s a lot of partnerships going on.”
Until a strict set of regulations for both military and commercial UASs is developed, manufacturers of C-UAS systems are still up in the air regarding the kinds of threats they need to mitigate. For now, the DoD is viewing it as an exciting opportunity for exploration.