Drones aid search-and-rescue efforts and capture that perfect aerial view of your beach vacation. They are simple to make, cheap to buy and available to almost anyone in the world. But drones can also present a serious risk to military forces. Because they're readily available, adversaries can easily weaponize store-bought drones.
There is no one, perfect solution for countering drones. However, there are proven, advanced technologies to address the threat – from weapons that can blast drones out of the sky to RF technology that can take control of a drone and put it on the ground safely, to other futuristic tools.
You don't want to use a large, expensive missile to knock out a small drone. Better to use a mobile system with near-infinite firing capacity to take out a drone, or a swarm of drones. A high-energy laser fits the bill.
“Small and cheap threats need adequately priced and available responses,” said Dr. Ben Allison, product line director for Raytheon's high-energy laser weapons systems.
The modular system offered by Raytheon works like this: A radar detects an object overhead. The radar then sends a list of contacts of interest to an advanced variant of the fielded Multi-spectral Targeting System, a suite of optical sensors, to figure out whether the unmanned aircraft system is a threat or a friend. If it's a threat, the system's beam director tells the laser where to zap the target.
The laser is fired with an X-Box controller. The cost per shot is basically the cost of electricity.
The system can be tailored to fit a vehicle or other platform, according to Allison. “The only thing that changes is how we package the power, which determines how long you want it to last in the field, and the size of the thermal system,” he said.
Both the power and thermal systems are based on the same technology featured in the Patriot air and missile defense system.
This scalable system was recently demonstrated at the U.S. Army’s Maneuver Fires Integrated Experiment, where the laser weapon system mounted on a small, all-terrain Polaris MRZR vehicle downed 12 airborne Class I and Class II UASs. The system also engaged targets from an Apache AH-64 helicopterThe next phase includes a preliminary design of a powerful, 100-kilowatt laser for the Army’s Family of Medium Tactical Vehicles.
So what does the future hold for lasers battling drones? “We’re definitely going higher power,” said Allison. “You could see naval surface ships equipped with hundreds of kilowatts of lasers. On the airborne side, we will see lasers on rotary platforms, fighters and large airborne transport platforms.”
Microwaves Vs. Drones
A laser can pick off a drone from afar. But if there are hundreds of drones closing in to attack, you may want a high-powered microwave.
Currently mounted on a shipping container-like box, PHASER high-powered microwaves emit radio frequencies in a conical beam from a dish.
"The beam is like a searchlight from a lighthouse,” said Don Sullivan, chief technologist of directed energy at Raytheon's Missile Systems business. “The fact that you can simultaneously track and immediately move to the next target to address not just a swarm, but multiple swarms, is a big advantage.”
The system downed 33 drones — two and three at a time — at the December U.S. Army’s MFIX exercise and future versions will be significantly smaller.
The Kamikaze Drone
Under an urgent operational need, the U.S. Army is now procuring the small, tube-launched Coyote drone as a near-term solution to eliminate enemy unmanned aircraft.
For its counter-UAS mission, Coyote often needs an extra set of eyes on the battlefield. Enter the small, precision radar, called KRFS, for Ku-band Radio Frequency System.
“First, you’ve got to see it, but then you need to track the target(s) with high accuracy,” said Don Williams, who manages Raytheon’s Multi-Function Radio Frequency System, or MRFS, product line. “It’s a true multi-mission radar.”
The KRFS radar can track small or large drones, and cue different effectors in response.
The Right Missile
Shoulder-launched or fired from a helicopter or ground-launcher, the Stinger missile doesn't need to hit a drone to knock it out because it's equipped with a proximity fuze. The missile can just explode nearby to do the job.
The AMRAAM air-to-air missile can also be fired from a ground launcher.
In January, Raytheon signed a teaming agreement with Department 13 International, a small, Maryland-based company, to develop and market counter-drone technologies for defense customers.
Instead of simply jamming radio signals, MESMER manipulates them to stop, redirect, land or take control of drones across a wide range of scenarios.
“MESMER is ideal when you can’t use a kinetic effect like a laser, microwave or projectile,” said Erik Grant, Raytheon technical director for mission support and modernization. “Using a kinetic effect against a drone near a crowded venue could result in injuries or death if the drone is forcibly brought down near people. MESMER, since it employs non-kinetic effects, can be used domestically by law enforcement or government agencies.”
MESMER can automatically detect approaching drones and be controlled by a tablet. It can be operated automatically, without operator intervention, to initiate a drone mitigation. It also has the ability to white-list friendly drones to avoid interfering with their operation.
The Cyber Frontier
The future of combatting drones lives in counter-drone cyber technology, which could be used independently or fused with other counter-drone methods.
“We wanted to find a more sophisticated way to defeat drones,” Grant said. “With cyber effects, we can detect a drone, and then decide whether to land it safely someplace away from people or just gain access to the drone undetected to identify and locate the drone controller.”
Grant’s group is also looking at command-and-control systems that employ various counter-drone technologies.
“Effectively determining if and when a drone is a threat and how to deal with that threat is going to be important,” he said.