Who Owns The Sky? Anti-Drone Tech To Keep Airplanes Safe

Battelle drone defender
Battelle drone defender
Alan Levin

PASADENA â€" The drone intruder was roaming around the Rose Bowl Stadium as 94,000 fans cheered, oblivious to the threat.

But scientists testing a new security device at the game knew: they detected its radio signals and seized control of the gatecrasher. This was only a simulation, but if the unmanned drone had been a security risk they could have forced it down -- even though the airwaves were choked by thousands of smartphones and Wi-Fi hotspots.

“It’s like being at a rock concert and trying to listen to someone at the other end of the stadium,” said Randy Villahermosa, principal director of the research and program development office of Aerospace Corp., which made the detection device. “It certainly did look feasible to us.”

In the past year, drones have flown onto the White House lawn, impeded more than a dozen flights battling California wildfiresand been spotted hundreds of times by pilots of traditional aircraft, including airliners holding more than 100 people. That has left law enforcement agencies, prisons and private companies desperate for some way to protect against the new airborne threat.

In the simulated drone attack on Jan. 1 in Pasadena, California, during one of college football’s premier contests, the aircraft was carted around the stadium on a golf cart to avoid violating U.S. regulations barring drone flights near sporting events. But it’s part of a tidal wave of efforts to counter the growing threat from the sale of millions of remote-controlled flying devices around the world.

A growing market

“It is one of the top, if not the top, safety issues facing airports around the country,” said Christopher Oswald, vice president for safety and regulatory affairs at the Airports Council International-North America trade group.

Scores of companies, from a division of aircraft manufacturing giant Airbus Group SE to tiny startups, are jumping into the anti-drone market. The products range from military-grade radars and lasers, to a company training eagles to snatch small dronesout of the sky for Dutch police.

Some companies have developed nets that one drone can drape over another to take them down.

“It is a hugely growing space and the traditional defense contractors will make some money selling these,” says Jim Williams, the former chief of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s drone division who is now at the law firm Dentons US LLP.

“There definitely is potential,” Phil Finnegan, director of corporate analysis at the aerospace researcher Teal Group Corp., said about the burgeoning drone-detection market.

Before these companies can take off, however, they must first maneuver through a thicket of legal, ethical and technical questions, according to Williams, Finnegan and Oswald.

Flash Gordon returns

Battelle, the world’s largest nonprofit research organization, learned that the hard way. Last year, it introduced its DroneDefender, a gun-like device resembling a prop from a “Flash Gordon” movie that blasts a radio beam at an unmanned device to jam its radio control signals. But it was forced to withdraw the product because using it violates U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations.

“We have had to go quiet on it while the FCC figures out how it’s going to regulate this sort of thing,” Katy Delaney, a spokeswoman for Battelle, said.

The FCC, which governs the nation’s airwaves, prohibits the use of devices that interfere with radio transmissions, including those that control drones. It is also against the law to sell such devices to unauthorized consumers in the U.S., agency spokesman Neil Grace said.

U.S. criminal law separately prohibits use of any "destructive device" to cripple an aircraft. While airport operators are anxious for tools to monitor drones that threaten aircraft, they are wary of the potential legal issues, Oswald said.

"There are some big open questions and gray lines,” he said.

After drone-related safety incidents and sightings rose from only a handful to more than 100 per month last year, the FAA announced it was working with CACI International Inc. to test the company’s drone monitor system, known as SkyTracker. It is based on technology that the CACI, which provides computer services to intelligence and defense agencies, has already developed, Mike Kushin, an executive vice president, said.

Drone in the sky â€" Photo: Andrew Turner

CACI’s system can not only monitor drones near sensitive sites, such as the U.S. Capitol, it can also home in on the person flying the device by monitoring radio signals, giving police the ability to locate the perpetrator. In some cases, it may even be possible to get identifying information such as a device’s serial number, Kushin said.

"You turn on the drone, you turn on the handset and there is a sync-up between them," he said. "We usually detect that even before the drone takes off."

The company believes it can defeat drone operators who encrypt radio signals and it works on small drone models made by all the main manufacturers, he said. Like the Aerospace device used at the Rose Bowl, CACI’s version can take over a drone’s controls. The company will only offer that portion of the product if a client is legally permitted to use it, Kushin said.

A task force of government agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, is participating in tests of the CACI equipment, according to Amanda DeGroff, an agency spokeswoman.

Airbus Defence & Space GmbH uses different technology to detect drones. Drawing from military technology, its radar can identify a small unmanned aircraft as far as 2.8 miles (4.5 kilometers) away, according to Meinrad Edel, director of sales, protection and reconnaissance at the company’s Ulm, Germany, facility. Video cameras take over at closer range and can see a drone as small as the popular SZ DJI Technology Co. Ltd.Phantom from .9 miles (1.5 kilometers), Edel said.

The company offers counter measures that can divert or take down the drone, if it’s legal to use such jamming technology, he said.

White House security

In the Rose Bowl test, the team from Aerospace, a nonprofit that does high-tech research for the government, was able to tease out the drone’s signals from airwaves around the stadium that were clogged by tens of thousands of smartphones, Wi-Fi networks and radio transmitters.

In a follow up last month, Aerospace’s engineers demonstrated it was possible to take over control of one drone without interfering with the radio signals of another nearby unmanned aircraft, Villahermosa said.

While the company won’t be selling anti-drone products, it is working with law enforcement agencies to find out whether the technology would work in real-world situations, he said.

Aerospace’s scientists have looked at various techniques for detecting drones and none of them are perfect, he said. Sensing radio signals will probably work for drone operators who accidentally fly into the wrong places, but may not be as effective against a sophisticated operator intentionally trying to evade detection. Protecting sites as sensitive as the White House may require multiple layers of technology, he said.

The problem is similar to creating anti-virus protections for a computer, he said. There will be an unending race between nefarious actors and those creating the defenses.

“There won’t be one magic solution or a Band-Aid that we can put on this to solve the drone-threat problem,” Villahermosa said. “It’s going to evolve over time."

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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