Recently, rogue drones have caused their fair share of trouble. Who can forget the drones that got in the way of firefighters while fighting back wildfires in Northern California this summer? Or the one that nearly knocked out a competitive skier in Italy just last month? Or the one that knocked out power in LA? Errant drones, it's safe to say, have at times become a major threat to human safety.
A new start-up, though, has developed drone-disabling technology that it hopes will offer a solution. SkySafe, a San Diego company started by drone experts from MIT, UCSD and the Air Force Research Lab, has created what is essentially a universal remote for drones.
Rather than just jamming all radio signals in the general vicinity of bad actor drones, as most other drone-disabling technologies do, SkySafe has figured out a way to lock on to an individual drone, knock out the signal piloting it, take over flight and land it safely. It's essentially drone hijacking, allowing anyone in possession of SkySafe's technology to take over control of a drone in order to keep airspace secure.
SkySafe wouldn't go into detail about their technology on the record because it's proprietary, but the basic idea isn't totally unprecedented. A few years back, a University of Texas team commandeered a drone by feeding it fake GPS signals (a technique known as "spoofing"). Others have experimented with using malware or leveraging a drone's API to do the hijacking.
But what SkySafe offers is unique in that it wouldn't require hacking into an individual drone every time law enforcement or firemen or an air traffic control needs to take one down.
SkySafe hasn't launched yet — it's planning to do so in the second half of 2016 — but when it does, it could be a really big deal. By August of this year, the Federal Aviation Association had already recorded nearly 700 incidents of drones flying dangerously close to airplanes in flight (it's not hard to imagine what might go wrong if a drone got sucked into an airplane's engine). And in just the past few months there have been more drone drop-offs at prisons than you can count on one-hand, like that time last month when a drone successfully delivered a handgun to a Canadian prison or in November when a drone crashed into a U.K. prison carrying drugs and cell phones or the drone that caused a free-for-all the month before that when it landed in an Oklahoma prison with heroin, blades and other contraband. For these reasons and more, in the public safety sector there is much interest in figuring out how to deal with misbehaving drones, but no clear answers.
SkySafe's technology joins a host of methods dreamed up for combatting the danger drones could potentially cause:
- Last month, Chinese drone maker DJI announced that it was introducing a geo-fencing system for its drones, so they won't be able to fly over prisons or power plants; the move came after one of its drones was flown into the White House's yard.
- This month, the Federal Aviation Association introduced regulations that require drone owners to register their high-tech toys in hopes of nudging them to behave more responsibly on their own.
- In Japan, police have bizarrely outfitted its own fleet of drones with nets to help scoop up other drones hovering in no-fly zones.
- In California, a law was recently vetoed that would have allowed authorities to use radio jamming to take down misbehaving drones, though jamming indiscriminately affects all devices in a given area, and thus is not considered to be an optimal solution.
- In Maryland earlier this year, firefighters were forced to try and take down an interfering drone using only a power hose.
"All of these organizations are just trying to cobble something together," SkySafe founder Grant Jordan told me. "But none of it really does anything."
Michael Froomkin, a drone expert at the University of Miami School of Law, said that while in certain situations it would be legal for the government or even an individual to disable another person's drone, it's unclear exactly what circumstances would afford the authority to do so. Often, that right hinges on the existence of a threat, either to personal property or public safety, and what exactly constitutes a "threat" is debatable.
"The interesting question is under what circumstances and what authority the government would have the right to do that," Froomkin told me via e-mail. "What authority is the government claiming here? There certainly can be situations where if there is a law or regulation authorizing this it could be legal."
SkySafe said it has already received interest from places like airports, local fire departments and prisons, and only plans to sell to similar customers with responsibility over public safety. In addition to being able to disable a drone, SkySafe says it can distinguish between individual drones based on signaling to discern exactly which drones have been operating in any given area and when — potentially helping to suss out repeat offenders.
When the FAA rolled out its drone rules earlier this month, it made sure that the penalties were steep, with those who fail to register their craft facing up to $250,000 in fines or three years in jail. The message there is clear: drones may be toys, but they are also a technology with the ability to cause serious consequences.
"It's a little scary when you start talking about how at an airport, one drone sucked into a jet engine could wreck that engine," Jordan told me. "It’s only a matter of time before something horrible happens."