Skip to main content

INSIGHTS BLOG > How Do We Defend Against Rogue Drones?

How Do We Defend Against Rogue Drones?

Written on 02 August 2015

Ruth Fisher, PhD. by Ruth Fisher, PhD

I’ve been reading a lot about drones, and the more I read, the more I’m convinced they’re going to cause a lot of problems, for everyone – citizens, businesses, and government alike.


Here’s some background information that lays out some relevant issues.


•  Drones are available to anyone.

Drones are cheap to buy, and they can be built from off-the-shelf parts (see, for example “Building a Drone vs Buying One – Which is Best?”). So while the government could theoretically “require” people to register drones, there’s no way to enforce that requirement.


•  It is difficult to identify drone owners and thus their intent.

In this sense, drones are similar to cyberattacks. In “Marching off to cyberwar,” The Economist indicates that

A cyberattack on a power station or an emergency-services call centre could be an act of war or of terrorism, depending on who carries it out and what their motives are.

•  Drones are difficult to track.

Traditionally, radar has been programmed to avoid birds and other white noise. From Robert Wall, “Next Step for Drones: Defending Against Them”

Experts say drones present many defense challenges. That’s partly because of the way conventional radar systems have evolved. For years, radar makers have used software to make sure small birds didn’t register on radar screen, creating clutter. Now, engineers have to develop algorithms to look at objects of that size and distinguish drones from birds.

Of course, new technologies are coming out that can pick up drones (on radar), but it’s not a trivial issue. From Jason Reagan, “5 Anti-Drone Solutions That Could Change the Game”

DeTect, the Florida-based company has developed technology that would automate the tricky process of fine-tuning the radar to find drones flying amid other clutter like birds and ground objects.

•  Drones are difficult to defend against.

°  While technologies are being developed to regulate drones (geofencing, zoning, etc.), these technologies can be jammed or over-ridden.

¤  Technologies are being developed by NASA to regulate drones. From James Trew, “Five questions about the future of drones with 3D Robotics' Colin Guinn”

NASA is actually actively working on an air traffic control system for drones, which would have them automatically respond to geofenced areas -- not only stationary buildings, but also around a moving plane or helicopter or other drones.

NASA plans on mapping and including buildings and airports to create "geofences" that drones will automatically avoid (that's how the "lanes" or corridors might work, too), it'll integrate with existing air traffic control to alert drone pilots—or the autonomous drone software, depending on how it's being operated—to low-flying planes, and it'll take into account weather, wind, and other drone traffic to help determine the best, and safest, route for the drone.

¤  Defensive technologies can be over-ridden. From NCC Group, “Vulnerabilities found in geofencing apps”

Geofencing apps, which use the global positioning system (GPS) to create virtual barriers to enable different functionality in applications, or devices, depending on geographical area, are not as secure as they could be.

However, we have found that it is possible to bypass their geofencing capability and to send false location information to users.

°  They can be difficult to shoot down, not to mention that shooting them down is dangerous in populated areas. Here’s an example of people trying to shoot down high-speed drones.

°  There are problems with signal jamming

¤  Signal jamming can turn a drone into a dangerous projectile. From Kelsey D. Atherton, “Russia Is Working on an Anti-Drone Microwave Gun”

… disabling a drone’s radio electronics means that the drone's cameras and controls probably stop working, and a defensive weapon that turns drones into aimless projectiles seems like a bad idea…

¤  General signal jamming will jam everything in the area.

¤  One possible solution is being developed. More from Jason Reagan:

Maldrone may be the world’s first drone virus – infecting approaching drones with malware and dropping them out of the air like a bag of hammers. The malware shuts off the drone’s autopilot system, causing it to drop out of the sky like a brick.”

•  Many drone owners disregard the laws surrounding the legal use of drones.

From Jack Nicas and Andy Pasztor, “FAA, Drones Clash on Rules for Unmanned Aircraft”

"Fewer and fewer people seem deterred by threats," said one federal official. "Nobody is asking the FAA how to proceed, so it's turned into a modern version of the Wild West, where some people think anything is OK.”

Some drone operators aren't shy about flouting the current rules. Mike Fortin, president of an Orlando, Fla., drone company that films concerts and TV commercials, received an email from an FAA official in January telling him that his business was violating FAA policy.

"My response to the FAA was to piss off," he said. The FAA hasn't followed up. If the agency sends a formal cease-and-desist letter, "I'd probably frame it, hang it up on the wall and keep going about my everyday business," Mr. Fortin said. The FAA declined to comment on the incident.

•  Drones present privacy and security issues to people and property.

From Vikki Stone, “Rise of the Drones”

…UAS [unmanned aerial vehicles] have the ability to house high-powered cameras, infrared sensors, facial recognition technology, and license plate readers.

Of course, drones can also carry weapons.

•  In September 2015 the government will release final guidelines for drones.

In February 2015 the government released proposed guidelines for public comment. According to the released version (see, for example, Bart Jansen, “FAA unveils drone rules; Obama orders policy for agencies”:

The FAA proposal would allow drones weighing up to 55 pounds to fly within sight of their remote pilots during daylight hours. The aircraft must stay below 500 feet in the air and fly less than 100 mph.

•   “The FAA is responsible for air safety from the ground up.”

Under 49 U.S.C. § 40103(b)(2), the FAA has broad authority to prescribe regulations to protect individuals and property on the ground and to prevent collisions between aircraft, between aircraft and land or water vehicles, and between aircraft and airborne objects.

•   “Airspace below 30 feet is considered part of individual property rights.”

According to The Humanitarian Space

In the United States, airspace above 700 feet is Federally restricted. Airspace below 30 feet is considered part of individual property rights, meaning that when you own a piece of land, you also own the 30 feet of air above it. Ownership of this airspace is occasionally able to be sold for provide through a transfer of development rights. But what about the airspace between 30 and 700 feet? At present, the FAA has restricted the use of drones for commercial use but amateurs are free to fly.

•  Current laws are “ill-equipped” to deal with drone trespassing on private land.

From Troy A. Rule, “Airspace in the Age of Drones”

Existing aerial trespass and takings laws, which were formulated prior to the advent of modern drone technologies, are ill-equipped to handle conflicts between domestic drone operators and landowners. To establish claims under these laws, landowners generally must prove that an aircraft flew within the nebulous “immediate reaches” of the airspace above their parcels and substantially interfered with their use and enjoyment of their land.

•  The Commons could potentially become filled with drone traffic,

together with it’s associated forms of “pollution.” From Bob Graves, “Community Airspace and the Invasion of the Drones”

Aside from privacy issues, there is the broader concern of "the commons" -- natural resources such as air, water and land that are not privately owned but held in common and available to all members of a community. A few drones may be one thing, but if nonmilitary unmanned aircraft become a commercial success, there will be very real issues of visual and noise "pollution" from flying devices in our shared airspaces.


So now, the Big Questions are:


•  How will people defend their property against drones?

The new guidelines coming out in September 2015 will probably dictate that people who feel threatened by drones flying over their property should call the police. However, (i) the police generally have more important things to do, and (ii) even if the police do respond to such calls, the drones will likely be long gone by the time the police arrive.

The new guidelines will probably also dictate that drones are only trespassing if they fly over someone’s property at lower than 30 feet altitude.  How does one prove a drone is within 30 feet?

These are just two of the many difficulties associated with drone trespass. It’s more than likely that at least some citizens will allegedly take drone trespassing over their property into their own hands. Is there another way for an irate citizen to respond other than by trying to shoot the drone down? From Bill Chppell, “Dispute Emerges Over Drone Shot Down By Kentucky Man”

A Kentucky homeowner [William Meredith] is arrested for shooting down a civilian drone he said was invading his family's privacy. The drone's owner insists that he did nothing wrong, in the latest case that highlights both confusion and concerns over the legal use of drones.

"It was hovering overtop of my property, and I shot it out of the sky."

Police were called to the scene; Meredith now faces felony charges of wanton endangerment and criminal mischief, with a court date set for September.

The drone's owner, David Boggs, says the drone wasn't hovering low over anyone's property, showing flight tracking data to local media that indicates an altitude of more than 250 feet. And he says he wasn't trying to invade anyone's privacy.

•  Who will pay for damages caused by rogue drones whose owners cannot be identified?

Currently homeowners insurance may cover property damage caused by someone else’s drone. But how about personal injury? And once drones become more popular, you can bet insurance companies will start excluding damages caused by drones from standard coverage. From Andrew Amato, “Do You Need Drone Insurance?”

“Homeowner’s insurance has always covered radio controlled aircraft and so far, drones are falling under this classification,” Skyward CEO Jonathan Evans told Dronelife. “But underwriters are beginning to rethink this policy.”

•  How will government protect against criminal/terrorist activity from drones?

Resources are scarce. The government can’t protect every commercial/public building potentially at risk from drone attacks.

From Hugh Brownstone, “Dealing With Rogue Drones”

You can’t exactly use Stinger anti-aircraft missiles or an A-10 Warthog with mini gun to take down a DJI Phantom, can you? And even if you could, how would you know you should? What’s a threat, and what’s idiocy?