The promise of new mobility foretells a universe of convenience, particularly within urban cores and when serving remote communities. While these promises highlight the vast array of business and personal opportunities that could appear in the next several years, it behooves us to also consider the more troubling side of new technology, the aspect that deals with security and safety. The drone industry and its regulators have been contemplating this facet of the industry for some years, and as a result, today we find ourselves at a milestone.
The FCC, DHS, DOJ and FAA in the United States just jointly released guidelines that advises current and future operators of anti-UAS (Unmanned Aircraft System) technology. This is essentially a regulatory beachhead for the industry in the U.S., a better-defined “square one” from which the government can build a framework of operational rules for the drone space in the coming years and decades.
It should be noted that anti-UASs have been already been successful in military instances, and that these rules are meant to govern civilian actors. The civilian drone space is considerably more complex in which to operate, as anti-UASs have to accurately detect and legally mitigate threats with zero allowance for harm to anyone or anything that isn’t the actual target. Protecting civilian infrastructure from drone threats is a broad and nuanced task; threats run the gamut from the careless, such as a recreational drone zipping too close to an airport, to the malevolent, where a drone bearing munitions hits a bridge, or an office building, or a train. Critical supply chains could be targeted by bad actors, causing food, medicine or other critical supply interruptions. In short, we need to defend against abuse of the same technology that the new mobility industry is relying on to deliver a more liveable, more sustainable way to move people and things.
This question of security for and from drones is global. For example, as of August 15, 2020, the Indian government has instituted a comprehensive set of drone operation protocols to provide for control in the skies: “[India] will allow only those drones that comply with the country’s ‘no permission, no take-off’ (NPNT) protocol to operate in areas demarcated as green and yellow zones, permitting them to fly over almost 70% of the country’s landmass.” Drone flights over cities, near military instillations, airports and other secure or restricted areas will be demarcated as red zones, which require clearance from the appropriate agencies prior to drone take-off.
Targeting civilian infrastructure isn’t the only malfeasance that less-than-lawful drone operators can get up to. Using drones to deliver contraband into prison yardsis already a problem, as is bulk narcotics trafficking via drone (with the appellation “narcodrone” arising from this use case). The aforementioned drones loaded with munitions are being used to conduct warfare between drug cartels in Mexico.
All of these scenarios and more are the fuel that drive innovation at anti-UAS companies. One such firm in the U.S., Fortem Technologies, approaches this arduous and constantly evolving challenge by combining artificial intelligence and robotics in a constructive way to deter threatening drone technology that is being exported around the world. This writer had the opportunity to speak to Timothy Bean, the CEO of Fortem Technologies, on this topic.
Bean is a seasoned senior executive that has a background in computer science and engineering. His education becomes evident as he described the deceptively simple solution that Fortem uses to secure a region from drone threats: “We use these tiny sensors distributed around a venue […], thousands [of them distributed] around a city, and we digitize the entire airspace, above an entire metro region. We can understand exactly what’s happening in that airspace, thanks to these sensors.”
Some airspace is more critical than others in a metro region, such as the airspace around and above an airport. “We create these volumetric exclusion zones, where we can monitor these boundaries with a rules engine, and our A.I. software platform, to understand what is hitting each boundary, what its intention might be, and what should be done about it, to keep that zone safe and secure.”
He continued to explain that their approach included having thorough situational awareness in the protected airspace. Fortem’s lynchpin seems to be their A.I. and rules engine, a system that can autonomously detect drones, determine their intentions, and respond appropriately as per the particular airspace policy in force. Responses include a wide range of options, metered out according to threat severity. A response might be to send a text message to someone in charge, or take a photo of the offending drone and bring a human into the decision loop. Higher threats could conceivably trigger responses that involve interception of some sort. Because of the nature of civilian drone threat scenarios, there needs to be a nuanced spectrum of responses. Bean was very clear about his understanding of the challenge and related needs.
Bean is very sure that drones will become pervasive one day, perhaps much like how smartphones are now ubiquitous. “I think everyone will have one,” said Bean, “the future is very bright for this technology. […] I think we’re going to see something that we call ‘democratization of the skies’, where every home and enterprise is going to be an airline. Every neighbourhood and house will be an airport.” He pointed out that autonomous air taxi manufacturers and Uber Elevate are heavily funded, and that the path to these “democratized skies” over the long term (think decades) has already been mapped out by technologists and futurists. The picture that Bean painted of the drone industry’s future was thorough and optimistic, which included opportunities for drone-centric enterprises (such as delivery services, air-taxi ridesharing, drone chartering etc.) that could only reasonably arise if the airspace in which they operated (and innovated) was safe and secure.
As we continue to make strides in the drone space, we are faced with the omnipresent double-edged sword that all new technologies bring with them. While opportunity and prosperity are outcomes that often accompany the appearance of new tech, so are threats and fear. Few people could lay claim to foreseeing how smartphones have, in 2020, created new opportunities and new threats, new cultures and new crimes. The same could be applied to the entire drone industry; we have a pretty fair idea of what the tech will be like in ten years, but we can’t predict all of the good and the bad. To have the good, the opportunities that come with new technology, it’s only prudent to assume that the bad will also appear. Companies like Fortem that develop anti-UAS technologies are banking on the belief that drones may become a favoured channel through which bad actors will deploy their harm—a belief that is frankly hard not to adopt.
About Fortem Technologies
Fortem Technologies is the leader in airspace awareness, security, and defense for detecting and defeating dangerous drones. Through an advanced, end to end system of distributed radar, AI at the Edge, deep sensor integration, and autonomous drone capture, Fortem monitors and defends the world’s venues, infrastructures, cities, and regions. The same system is accelerating the safety of the world’s airspace for urban air mobility. Based in Pleasant Grove, Utah, the company is privately held and backed by Boeing, DCVC, Mubadala Investment Company, Signia Venture Partners and others.