Airbus seeing strong interest in its counter-UAV technology


Airbus Defence and Space has developed new technology to counter unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) threats and has already delivered some systems to customers, but will offer full the production version early next year.

Meinrad Edel, Director of Sales: Mission and Support Systems at Airbus Defence and Space Electronics, said that unmanned aerial vehicles will become a major problem as they are cheap and are being sold in enormous numbers. He added that every day there is news about UAVs flying over French nuclear power stations and flying into prisons to deliver drugs. Other high profile incidents involving UAVs that he highlighted included the crash of a UAV onto the White House lawn and a UAV that carried the wrong national flag into a soccer stadium, causing a near riot.

In South Africa, a UAV caused a Silver Falcons aerobatic team display to be interrupted at the Rand Easter Show this year.

Edel cautioned that what has been seen up until now “is just the start. Until now we haven’t seen terrorist attacks but it’s coming.” He also warned of the first swarm attack which will most likely occur in a few years’ time. Apart from outright attacks, he told journalists during a presentation that intelligence gathering by terrorists is another major UAV threat. Airbus believes hostile UAVs will most likely become one of the biggest threats within the next five years, especially as there is currently almost no defensive assets in place anywhere against them. Apart from military and terror threats, Airbus sees the invasion of privacy, espionage, and the disruption of critical infrastructure and events as threats.

Edel said that Airbus decided to look into the UAV threat around a year ago when a large customer approached the company with a request to secure an asset. “Then we sat down and asked what can be done.”

The result of company development is a complete counter-UAV solution that detects, identifies, jams and disables UAVs. This comprises the Spexer 500AC radar (which can pick up a small UAV at a distance of two to ten kilometres), NightOwl Z thermal imaging camera (which can detect small UAVs at 1.5 km) and laser rangefinder, Skylark 7050C direction finder (which is effective 1-2 km from the pilot), UAV database and VPJ-R6 jammer (which can jam at distances of between 1 and 2 km).

Edel said that radar is the best way of detecting UAVs as lidar is susceptible to obstructions while acoustic sensors struggle to find UAVs beyond short ranges and in noisy surroundings. Once a UAV is detected, it needs to be identified. Airbus’s counter-UAV solution uses a database to try and determine what type of UAV it has detected so that jamming is most effective.

Once a UAV has been identified as a threat, there are several ways in which it can be disabled. Edel said that one of the best countermeasures is to identify and arrest the pilot, which can be done using the company’s direction finding technology, which can pinpoint the location of the controller and emitter.

Another solution is to try and capture the UAV (such as by using a larger UAV with a net or a hook or to hijack its control signal) or use GPS spoofing to introduce a fake GPS signal and steer the UAV off course, or jam the UAV’s video link. Edel said that UAVs only use a handful of frequencies, with which the company’s jammer is programmed. He said the first step is to jam the aircraft’s remote control link, which in many cases will cause the UAV to automatically fly home – this also allows for tracking of the pilot. If the aircraft is flying along pre-programmed GPS waypoints, the GPS system will have to be jammed. However, this can cause problems in places like stadiums that use remote control and GPS for broadcasting.

Other options that are being explored include using high energy lasers to disable the aircraft, using a high powered electromagnetic field to overload its circuits, a water gun, net launcher and means of sabotaging its propulsion system. Edel noted that in spite of it being difficult to shoot down a UAV, especially if it’s coming out of the sun, this approach can be dangerous as the aircraft could fall on someone and cause serious injuries.

Airbus has successfully demonstrated its counter-UAV system and aims to sell a market-ready version in the second quarter of 2016. Edel said that the company is already talking to potential customers and has already sold a number of systems, tailored to specific customers’ requirements. Customers include governments, power plant operators and non-profit organisations that organise big sports events, for example.

Edel noted that the company’s counter-UAV system is still a work in progress and that Airbus is working on a fully automatic identification and classification process. Other future technologies include a beacon for friendly UAVs and additional sensors for the system such as acoustic sensors.

Although Airbus is pre-empting the threat from UAVs, it is not the only one and there are a number of competing systems on the market. For instance, a British team composed of Blighter Surveillance Systems, Chess Dynamics and Enterprise Control Systems unveiled at DSEI 2015 the world’s first fully integrated detect-track-disrupt Anti-UAV Defence System (AUDS). The AUDS “features a quad band radio frequency (RF) inhibitor/jammer, an optical disruptor and rapid deployment features in the final production version of the market leading counter-drone system”. The AUDS system is designed for countering drones or remotely piloted aircraft in remote border sites or urban areas and it costs about $1.24 million.

The Franco-German Saint-Louis Research Institute developed and tested successfully during the G8 a new C-UAV system, used on the KSK, a Special Forces’ mini-UAV. At DSEI 2015, Rheinmetall Defence Electronics showcased a new sea-based anti-UAV laser system. The system features 4 high energy lasers (HELs) mounted on turret. The lasers can reportedly shoot down a UAV at 500 metres.

The French government is also looking at the issue of rogue UAVs, with its ONERA aerospace laboratory dedicated to a Global Analysis and Evaluation of Technologies and Methods for Combatting Unmanned Aircraft Systems programme. This programme, led by Thales, has similar purposes to the Falcon Shield for the French armed forces and police. Thales is using a combination of its radar, acoustic detection, direction finders, radio and video locators, and laser scanner technologies to neutralize or intercept illicit UAVs.

On the U.S. side, the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) has just entrusted Shared Spectrum Company (SSC) to develop a jammer to neutralize enemies’ UAVs. They are working on the development of anti-jamming pods UAVs which can be embedded on a UAV. The U.S Army has also developed High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator (HEL MD) that will become part of the Integrated Fire Protection Capability (IFPC) Increment 2 in the 2020s, using a 10-kw off-the-shelf laser, at a low cost per shot. Meanwhile, the firm SRC is developed TCUT, an anti-UAV defence system linking its LSTAR radar to an electromagnetic jammer.

Meanwhile, Israel Aerospace Industries offers its Drone Guard UAV disruption system using X-band radars to detect targets.