counter-uas technology (DARPA)

Unmanned Systems

DOD invests in counter-drone technologies

As the number of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) grows, so too does the Defense Department’s need to protect the military services from encountering unwanted flying objects.

This year, DOD spent about $900 million on counter-UAS solutions, according to a new report titled “The DOD’s C-UAS Strategy” by the Institute for Defense and Government Advancement. DOD requested $500 million for counter-UAS funding for fiscal 2020, which is a reflection of the department’s likely move toward integrating such solutions into broader programs, the report states.

DOD’s focus is shifting from developing new technologies and training to building standard acquisition processes, so that in 2020 it can concentrate on interoperability and synchronizing counter-drone initiatives across the department.

The report looks at the top counter-UAS technologies that the military is deploying in the near term, and at what’s coming up farther out into the future.

Current efforts include an August award by the Air Force to Ascent Vision Technologies for $23 million to supply mobile counter-drone vehicles for the eXpeditionary Mobile Air Defense Integrated System program. That program uses radar, optics, radio frequency detection, a jammer and electronic command and control mitigation to find and remove unknown UAS, according to the report.

The Army is making similar moves. In January, it awarded SRC a $108 million contract to deliver a vehicle-integrated Silent Archer counter-drone system that uses radar, cameras and jamming technology to detect, track and defeat small, low-flying drones.  It is also looking to augment its defensive arsenal with anti-drone ray guns that use radio control frequencies to disrupt commercial drones’ communications, forcing them out of the air.

Other tools are still in the development phase. For instance, in October, the Air Force received a mobile high-energy laser weapon system from Raytheon that the service will send overseas as part of a yearlong experiment in training operators and testing the system’s effectiveness. “Essentially an ‘anti-drone buggy,’ the high-energy laser system is mounted on a small all-terrain vehicle and uses electro-optical/infrared sensors and high power microwave (HPM) systems to detect, track and disrupt the guidance system of drones. Once the UAV is pinpointed, it is quickly neutralized with a laser,” according to the report.

Lockheed Martin also is working on its own high-energy laser system called ATHENA, or the Advanced Test High Energy Asset system. The transportable ground-based system uses a specialized 30-kilowatt beam that applies intense heat to damage or destroy UAVs or other close-in, low-value threats such as improvised rockets, vehicles and small boats.

Other initiatives include the Air Force's Tactical High-power Microwave Operational Responder. THOR is an electromagnetic weapon developed by the Air Force Research Lab that provides non-kinetic defeat of drone swarms or multiple targets for airbase defense. The system operates from ground power and uses short pulse of microwaves to disable the electronics on the drones.

Right now, fully autonomous, artificial intelligence-driven C-UAS solutions are mostly in the planning phases, but there are budding efforts. For instance, Customs and Border Protection awarded a $1 million to Citadel Defense to use the company’s AI-powered drone solution, Titan, to protect the southern border from UAS delivering contraband or assisting illegal crossings.  It uses AI and deep learning identify and classify an approaching UAS or a swarm of drones and applies countermeasures to induce the device to land or return to its home base.

In May, Raytheon announced that it had successfully tested a hot fire rocket motor for its smart bullets, drone interceptor technology that can track targets on the move. The Defense Advanced Research Project Agency contracted with Raytheon Missile Systems in January 2017 to work on a prototype under the agency’s Multi-Azimuth Defense Fast Intercept Round Engagement System program, which aims to use ammunition rounds that can alter their flight path in real time to stay on target to engage multiple fast-approaching threats.

“Though many of the existing solutions represent huge technological advancements from where we were just five years ago and show a tremendous amount of potential, the technology has not quite caught up with the need and a ‘silver bullet’ solution to the small drone problem remains elusive,” the report states.

This article first appeared on GCN, a partner site of Defense Systems. 

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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