City streets and bridges across Washington, D.C., have been locked down in anticipation of President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, but securing the airspace over the city is a near-impossible task.
Making it an even greater concern is Biden’s outdoor swearing-in ceremony and the potential for large protests across the city. The Secret Service oversees security for the event and identified drones, or small unmanned aerial systems, as a threat to the inauguration. The agency declined to comment on how it will respond to this risk. Half a dozen companies who make technology that can detect and take down rogue drones, including for the government, walked the Washington Examiner through how they believe the Secret Service is approaching the situation.
Drones pose two types of threats based on how they can spy on operations from above and be physically used as a weapon. Surveillance is how Aerial Armor operations manager Brandon Lugo is most accustomed to seeing his company's technology used by clients.
"More times than not, we’re seeing drones used to monitor law enforcement, monitor their activities and whereabouts, and use that information," said Lugo, noting examples from protests across the United States in 2020.
"The anti-law enforcement groups are able to watch the law enforcement's movements, anticipate where they’re going to be, and able to avoid and bypass the security in place," Lugo said, which would hurt federal and local officers' ability to respond to protesters or rioters across the city.
“The second and most obvious is a weaponized drone," said Andy Morabe, vice president of sales and marketing for IXI Technology’s DRONEKILLER machine.
A large drone can be modified to carry a gun, explosives, and hazardous materials, explained Morabe, all of which can put the public in danger.
"The mere presence of drone appearing to carry a payload can cause a panic that can be worse than the threat itself," said Morabe.
Fortem Technologies CEO Timothy Bean pointed to unauthorized drone flights that have targeted nuclear plants and the White House, even terror plots that sought to use drones to fly bombs into troops and facilities.
Christopher R. Williams, CEO of Citadel Defense, said that in the right person’s hands, a drone can disrupt even military and government operations. They are capable of carrying remote-controlled firearms and explosives and carrying out a cyberattack.
Drone and logistic operator Peter Trempeck monitores the automatic landing of a drone with a case for medical stuff during a presentation for media, near the Labor Berlin laboratory in Berlin, Germany, Monday, Nov. 23, 2020. Each drone can carry about 40 test samples, not only for Corona tests, that need to be examined in a laboratory. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)
Unlike other U.S. cities, Washington is a no-fly zone for drones. That means drones are physically unable to lift off in Washington, and if they take off from Northern Virginia, they will likely run into an invisible wall in the sky while crossing the Potomac River into Washington.
“Their first line of defense is geofencing,” said Morabe, describing the invisible wall in the sky. “This is really nothing more than drone manufacturers themselves ensuring that their drone will not fly within the geographical coordinates of Washington DC. This is already programmed into the drone’s software and is reinforced through software updates.”
However, these software limitations can be defeated in a manner similar to someone jail-breaking their cellphone to cancel the GPS input altogether. This, experts explained, is where inauguration planners should be focused.
“Most likely, the Secret Service is using a fixed system [to detect drones]," said Morabe.
Fixed systems are attached to a street light or other permanent infrastructure. They contain radio frequency receivers able to detect signals coming and going from the drone and the operator, high-resolution cameras to capture images of drones flying by, short-range and long-range radars, and acoustic capabilities to detect the sound of drones buzzing by. Radars can tell law enforcement which direction the drone is flying, its altitude, and speed.
These detectors are often installed in traffic lights. When they detect a drone, that information is pushed out and automatically processed by software and can be looked at by a person, FLYMOTION Cofounder Ryan English said.
"If you can imagine blocks and blocks of streetlights with acoustic sensors, drones can be detected at the outskirts of city limits and tracked all the way to its intended target," said Morabe.
But taking down or mitigating a drone is more complicated than detecting it.
"As it stands, domestic law enforcement and security professionals don't have the technology required to detect a drone until it's within visual line of sight, and current 'take-down' methods are limited to trying to shoot a drone out of the sky, putting anyone nearby at risk of injury or death," Bean wrote in a statement.
Counter-drone tools, or those that can interrupt a drone's flight or force it down from the sky, send a radio frequency signal to the drone that overrides the instructions it is receiving from the drone operator. This process of jamming can work up to three miles away, more than enough distance to cover from the U.S. Capitol down the National Mall and to the Lincoln Memorial.
"My assumption would be that they are deploying multiple systems to detect and essentially mitigate as well. That would be the interruption," said Lugo, the operations manager for Aerial Armor.
“The Secret Service is completely prepared to counter the threat by consumer drones,” said Morabe.
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.