It's a pilot's nightmare.
For 36 hours in December 2018, rogue drones that got too close to the flight path shut down London’s Gatwick International Airport, grounding aircraft at one of the UK’s biggest transportation hubs. Similar incidents disrupted traffic at London’s Heathrow International Airport in early January and more recently, at New Jersey’s Teterboro Airport.
“The flight disruptions at Gatwick, Heathrow and Teterboro underscore how vulnerable we are to this new threat,” said Waseem Naqvi, a Raytheon Technologies expert in unmanned aerial systems. “For under $1,000, you can go into most department stores and walk out with a very capable drone that can be used for nefarious reasons. Criminals, terrorists, state actors; just about anybody can exploit a drone for malicious missions.”
The problem is that drones are small enough to be difficult to detect and defeat. Raytheon Technologies has developed a counter-UAS technology called Windshear that promises to help solve the problem. It’s a command, control and communications system that allows for rapid, plug-and-play use of multiple sensors and both kinetic and non-kinetic effects, helping operators rapidly deploy the right response at the right time.
“An operator only has to learn and use a single interface to control multiple layers of detectors, identifiers and effectors,” Naqvi said. “As the threat evolves, with new drone tactics and technology, so will the tech to detect and mitigate them.”
Windshear can track drones with radio frequencies, radar, acoustic sensors, electro-optical and infrared cameras, or human ground spotters. Raytheon Technologies has tested several detectors, including its own Skyler low-power radar, the RF-based MESMER (from Raytheon Technologies and Department 13) and the multi-detecting Black Sage UASX.
Those last two can be used to defeat the drones as well as find and track them. MESMER, for example, manipulates radio frequencies to control attacking drones and is effective when non-kinetic effects are called for. Black Sage UASX is a system that combines sensors, cameras, effectors and software.
“You need multiple detectors because drones are very hard to spot,” said Dr. Torsten Staab, principal investigator of counter-drone UAS technology at Raytheon Technologies. “They can fly feet from the ground, avoiding radar, have a very small cross-section, are relatively quiet and almost impossible to spot with the eye when they’re above 300 feet or so. And now we’re seeing autonomous drones that don’t emit RF signals, which have preprogrammed routes, either using GPS or machine vision.”
Windshear can catalog the most common makes and models on the market. Using artificial intelligence, it helps the operator determine whether the drone is friend or foe, white-listing friendly drones.
Countermeasures to defeat drones include RF jamming or spoofing and cyber effects, which could allow Windshear operators to take control of the enemy drone, land it or send it home.
Raytheon Technologies also offers high-energy laser and Phaser™ high-power microwave system technologies that can disrupt and disable UAVs. The systems knocked down 45 drones, including swarms, in a U.S. Army exercise, and were also demonstrated at a U.S. Air Force directed-energy exercise at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico.
The Army is turning to Raytheon Technologies' small, tube-launched Coyote UAS as a near-term tool to eliminate enemy unmanned aircraft. Coyote carries various payloads that can cripple enemy drones.
Artificial intelligence in Windshear selects the best course of action in a particular circumstance, giving operators choices when it comes to dealing with drones, according to Staab.
“You probably don’t want to use a destructive kinetic effect in a stadium, for example, where debris, explosives or chemical agents might rain down on the crowd,” he said. “Also, if one effect fails, then you have a second, third or fourth option you can use.”
Raytheon Technologies is improving the speed of the AI, since some drones fly as fast as 200 mph and can be sent in swarms or waves.
“From detection to mitigation might only be five seconds,” Naqvi said. “No one solution is 100% bulletproof. That’s why we made Windshear – it’s an open architecture (system) that will evolve and improve.”