The drone industry is currently experiencing exponential growth with no signs of slowing down. While this is a good thing for all of the relevant industries who benefit from UAV’s, new technology always brings unexpected challenges and the need for regulations.
One of the largest challenges is really pretty obvious: How to keep drones out of restricted airspace.
The FAA has done a remarkable job moving quickly to ensure both remote pilots and the general public adapt to the evolutionary phase we’re currently experiencing. Needless to say, despite everyone’s best efforts, the introduction of drones into commercial airspace hasn’t been entirely smooth.
Whether intentionally, or by the fault of naivety there have been enough illegal incidents to require a counter technology to keep drones out of areas where safety is of the utmost priority.
In this article, we are going to discuss drone jammers for what they are, where they are being used, and whether or not you need to be worried about encountering one.
What is a Drone Jammer?
Unfortunately, a drone jammer is not a onesie you put on your drone before tucking it into bed (Maybe one day friends). It’s also not as malicious as the name sounds, it won’t be freezing your props mid-flight and causing your drone to fall to the ground (Legally of course).
A Drone Jammer, simply put, is a machine designed to send electromagnetic noise at radio frequencies with the purpose of overriding the same radio and GPS signals your drone uses to operate. A drone jammer’s frequency is generally assigned at 2.4Ghz or 5.8Ghz which are public frequencies non-assigned to manned aircraft, public broadcasts or cell phone signals.
They will often look very similar to guns and operate by projecting the jammer signal in the shape of a cone of about 15-30 degrees. When a drone gets hit with the jammer’s signal, the most common response is for the drone to return back to its point of origin (Unless GPS is also jammed), giving the jammer operator the option to track the drone back to the pilot. In other cases, a drone jammer may cause the drone to land on the spot in order to conduct a forensic investigation.
The heavy-duty drone jammers on the market can work from up to several kilometers away and are increasingly more effective as the pilot’s remote gets further from the drone. This technology is actually a win-win for both pilots and controlling agencies as it presents far less risk than other drone countermeasures, and allows in most situations for the pilot’s drone to remain unharmed.
Drone jamming by radio signal is the preferred and safest method for controlling rogue UAVs. However, because not all drones are purchased and built via DJI, or other commercial manufacturers, there is room for more physical measures should a drone jammer not complete the task. Other measures seen being used include:
- Drone Netting- If a drone breaches a jamming signal, depending on the situation, larger drones carrying nets can be deployed to physically snare a rogue UAV and bring it out of the sky. In this scenario, a drone falling from the sky is more likely, and the pilot will probably not get the drone back in one piece, if at all.
- Shoot the Drone Down- During the South Korean Olympic games in 2018 the security staff had cUAS protocols of actually shooting rogue drones out of the sky should the situation escalate. Fortunately, this did not need to happen, and instead, people will forever remember the amazing synchronized drone performance put on by Intel. Check out the video!
The Legality of Drone Jammers
The use of “cell jammers” or similar devices designed to intentionally block, jam, or interfere with authorized radio communications (signal blockers, GPS jammers, i.e drone jammers) is a violation of federal law. Thus, the use of the technology is generally limited to the military, police and first responders, depending on which country you are located in.
Domestically, the United States federal government does not allow state or local authorities to pursue action against drone pilots, even when a drone is being flown illegally. While it may seem irregular that our local authorities do not yet have the means to take action, analysts of the technology believe it will be a good thing to develop standards on a Federal level so parties inherently biased against drone use cannot take matters into their own hands.
In July of 2018 the FAA spotlighted problems it had found with implementing counter-drone measures:
- Airports have a vast amount of radio signals and interferences at play already; detecting drones in such a busy environment and then trying to disrupt their signals can interfere with commercial flights.
- It requires a large unit of men to operate the equipment necessary to first positively identify a UAV, and then disable the potential threat before anything happens.
- How expensive is it currently to install a system with enough sensors to be effective, compared to what might be available as counter-drone technology continues to develop over the next few years?
The real problem at hand is developing a system for actually being able to prosecute offenders on a local level. Currently, many officers are intimidated by the prospect of unlawful arrests and preemption by not having the authority to act on offenders.
Even at the Federal level, there have been very few cases against the illegal use of drones. To put how few in perspective there have only been 49 legal enforcement actions from June 7, 2007 to May 2, 2018, according to a U.S accountability Office.
With seemingly so little being done in our day-to-day world, who are using drone jammers currently?
Where Drone Jammers Are Being Used
Since drone jamming is limited legally to the federal government, the current applications of the technology are being reserved for high profile events and within operations directly related to the secret service and military. One of the first public statements made in regards to signal jamming and government safety occurred back in 2015 after a drone crash landed on the white house lawn.
A CIA official spoke with the Associated Press about looking into why they missed the drone, and how efforts would immediately be ramping up to further secure the White House grounds via signal jamming. If you haven’t heard a lot about the specific technology and protocol involved with drone jamming, it’s because the Federal Government has been attempting to get ahead of the rise in commercial drone use by developing its own technologies, and crafting specific legislation to ensure National Security.
The old saying goes that whatever technology we can see being used and sold by the average consumer is probably a decade or more behind what the military and government already have in development. Without weighing in too heavily on the philosophy of this statement, it is currently very apparent our government is busy working on drone jamming technology that will act to keep our skies safe from both average commercial remote pilots, and those intending on causing harm.
High Profile Events
As we mentioned earlier, the use of cUAS technology (counter Unmanned Aerial System technology) has been a necessity at events on a scale like the Olympics. There have also been many publicized discussions of needing cUAS technology at high profile sporting events ran by the NFL.
This year at the Mercedez-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia, the NFL also partnered with Intel to fly 150 drones inside the stadium for its own choreographed performance, while an entirely separate team handled security and surveillance outside on the roof. The Super Bowl is one of the world’s most expensive and widely broadcasted events, making it one of the pioneers in working with cUAS technology providers, in conjunction with federal agencies.
What To Know As A Remote Drone Pilot
The main takeaways to consider about drone jammers are:
- It is only legal for federally authorized agencies to use them
- We couldn’t find any reports of a drone pilot encountering a jammer outside of a major event. This isn’t to say it hasn’t happened, especially since drone jamming could be mistaken for an error in the drone’s software.
There are companies who sell the technology, all of which are supposed to state that using one in the United States is illegal, yet it will not be obvious or stated to everyone who may be seeking to own one.
The upside here is that drone jammers are expensive, ranging between $800-$18,000+.
The probability you would encounter a drone jammer while following the rules set forth by the FAA is very low to none. The key is knowing the rules in the first place. If you were to seek footage of a large sporting event or were to fly into a military operation zone, or even too close to an airport, it would be an entirely different story. A drone jammer might even be the least of your worries.
The best way to stay in the know is to learn the rules and regulations of Part 107 and to become certified as a remote pilot.