UK government funds 18 projects to develop anti-drone technologies

Government has listened to ideas, is now funding the development of proof-of-concepts and prototypes.

Large Lime Green Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Drone with a Machine Gun

Large Lime Green Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Drone with a Machine Gun 3d illustration 3d render

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The UK government has approved £2 million ($2.57 million) worth of funding for 18 projects that will develop anti-drone and drone detection technologies.

The funding comes part of a competition held by the Defence and Security Accelerator (DASA) program under the UK's Ministry of Defence (MOD).

MOD officials approved funding earlier this year, in April, after a series of amateur drone incursions froze air travel at several airports across the UK.

Infamous is a three-day incident at the Gatwick Airport in London just before Christmas last year, and another day of flight cancellations in January, at Heathrow, London, one of the world's largest airports.

DASA contest

In April, MOD, through DASA, asked the private sector for solutions to detect and neutralize "small UAS (unmanned aerial system) threats."

Engineering firms and defence contractors were given six months to come up with new technologies that could do one of two things: (1) detect approaching drones, and (2) neutralize incoming threats before they reach a target.

This week, DASA announced the 18 projects who received funding and the ideas they are currently developing.

Winners will now enter a two-phase process. In Phase 1, participants will have to develop their theoretical proposals into proof-of-concept designs. This first phase will last until the summer of 2020. In Phase 2, projects which receive approval will continue to develop their proofs-of-concept into products that can be integrated into live environments.

"Among the proposal being developed are methods for detecting 4G & 5G controlled drones, cutting edge applications of machine learning and artificial intelligence for sensors to automatically identify UAVs, and low-risk methods of stopping drones through novel electronic defeat or interceptor solutions," DASA said this week in a press release.

The full list of 18 projects funded (around £100,000 each) by MOD's DASA are as follow:

  • Airspeed Electronics Ltd – to develop an artificial intelligence detection system which uses acoustic sensors.
  • Animal Dynamics – to develop UAS swarm system to detect and neutralise.Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAV) by employing peregrine falcon attack strategies.
  • Autonomous Devices Limited – to develop interception technology.
  • BAE Systems Applied Intelligence Ltd – to develop electromagnetic defeat of UAS.
  • BAE Systems Applied Intelligence Ltd – to develop passive radar for detection of UAVs.
  • Cubica Technology Ltd – to develop an automatic recognition and targeting system of UAVs from large distances.
  • MBDA UK Ltd – to demonstrate an integrated system to detect, track and intercept hostile drones.
  • Northrop Grumman – to develop UAS defeat using cyber and sensor vulnerabilities.
  • Northumbria University – to develop anti-swarm drone technology.
  • PA Consulting – to develop a detection system against cellular controlled UAS.
  • Plextek Services Limited – to develop detection and signal jamming capability for UAS.
  • Plextek Services Limited – to develop miniature Counter-UAS radar.
  • QinetiQ – to develop a drone tracking system in complex environments.
  • QinetiQ – to develop a 'hard kill' for disrupting the UAV's on board electronics.
  • RiskAware Ltd – to develop an automated drone identification and target tracking system.
  • Thales UK – to develop a machine learning for Counter-UAS radar.
  • University College London – to develop signal processing and machine.learning algorithms to identify drones in areas highly populated by birds.
  • An additional proposal, subject to contract.

ZDNet spoke with Dr. Aled Catherall, Head of Technology at Plextek, one of the contractors who will receive DASA funding to develop two anti-drone and drone detection technologies.

Plextek and other fellow participants will be tasked with developing technologies for what experts call Class 1 drones, Dr. Catherall told ZDNet in a phone call yesterday.

These are the types of drones one could buy in online stores, and not the Class 2 and Class 3 types, which are bulkier airplane-like systems used for weather forecasts, aerial photography, reconnaissance, or military combat.

The purpose of this project, Dr. Catherall said, is to protect critical infrastructure from smaller drones that may wander into areas where they're not supposed to -- like airports, hospital helipads, or military bases.

The new technology that's being developed through DASA should be small, cheap, and portable, as it will be most likely be deployed all over the UK, and cost and size shouldn't be a factor that may prohibit real-world applications.

For example, Dr. Catherall told ZDNet that Plextek's technology would be small enough to be integrated into existing drone designs.

Organizations that need protection for small drones can deploy their own drones in the sky, at their perimeter. An organization's drone would run Plextek's drone detection technology to locate any incoming threats, hover in their vicinity, and deploy a jamming signal that forces the drone to lose connection with its operator and land on the ground before breaching a target's perimeter.

The advantage here is that organizations and government agencies won't need to deploy a ground jamming station that may also jam legitimate radio frequencies and disrupt secondary services, but would only used a small jammer aimed at the intruding drone only.

Drone registration already started

But besides sponsoring the development of anti-drone and drone detection technologies, the UK government has also taken other steps to fight rogue operators flying their drones where they aren't supposed to.

Earlier this year, the UK government made drone registration compulsatory and ordered that drone operators pass a test about safe drone usage before being allowed to fly their devices.

The UK government's drone registration portal went live earlier this week, on November 5.

Currently, flying drones where you're not supposed to has become a trendy way of protesting, so DASA's contest couldn't come sooner.