After graduating from MIT with a degree in computer science, Grant Jordan spent four years at the United States Air Force acquiring a particular set of skills, skills that make him very dangerous to drones like this. "I worked on counter drone systems, and got a taste for everything out there. Giant laser systems, for example." Setting drones on fire while they are in still in flight is pretty cool. "I have seen them in person and they are amazing. But they don’t apply well to the civilian world."
Today Jordan and his co-founders are announcing the public launch of SkySafe, a drone protection startup that wants to help facilities secure critical airspace. The company also revealed that it had raised a $3 million round of funding led by Andreessen Horowitz. While Jordan wouldn’t discuss the exact techniques the company uses in detail, the company claims it can identify drone; distinguish authorized units from rogue ones; track the location of the drone operator; and if needed, take control of the drone — disabling it or bringing it in safely for a landing.
"We don’t just detect, we do the intercept side," says Jordan. "We fully take control of the drone from the operator, it sees us as the legitimate controller, and we can move it to a safe location and land it." SkySafe can "spoof" the drone to hijack control, a technique that was demonstrated on commercial drones way back in 2012, and has been used by drug cartels against border patrol drone flown by the Department of Homeland Security.
Military-grade drones attempt to prevent jamming or spoofing of their signal by cycling through different frequencies and adding high-level encryption to their signal. But that isn’t something most commercial drone makers can consider. "The manufactures know it’s an issue. They’re not going to advertise it as an issue," said Michael Buscher, CEO of Vanguard Industries, in an interview with Defense One. "It becomes cost-prohibitive. They’re not going to, all of a sudden, put it in their aircraft because it does drive the price up."
Fully autonomous drone can emit no radio signals
Some drone makers were skeptical the technology would work as advertised. "I get asked about these "drone defense" startups all the time (there are lots of them) and to be honest I haven't seen any technology that can actually identify and block all drones," wrote Chris Anderson, CEO of 3D Robotics. "Also, drones by definition can be autonomous, which means that they don't have to emit any radio signals at all when in autonomous mode." He thinks the best solution is better protection from within the drone. "The majority of bad behavior is actually by operators who are more ill-informed than ill-intentioned, and we're optimistic that our new built-in safeguards will vastly reduce the number of incidents."
SkySafe’s investors say it’s reasonable to expect that, if the company’s technology proves popular, manufacturers will try to build drones that can’t be affected by it. "Like all security, it’s a cat and mouse game," said Chris Dixon, the general partner at Andreessen Horowitz who spearheaded this investment. Drone manufacturers were less sanguine about SkySafe’s plans. "We can't respond to particular claims from a company we don't know, with technology we haven't seen, from a video we haven't verified," said a DJI spokesperson. "That said, any company that plans to bring down a drone by physical or electromagnetic interference is planning to violate federal aviation law or federal communications law and may increase the safety risk for individuals on the ground. DJI believes that any unmanned technology company should operate within the bounds of the law."
Legislators want to green light anti-drone technology
The laws governing this kind of technology, however, may soon be changing. A rise in reports of near misses between drones and passenger aircraft has raised concerns among legislators. And the recent news that a British Airways jet may have a struck a drone during landing has heightened the atmosphere of concern. In a bill passed yesterday by the US Senate to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration, lawmakers suggested testing technologies that could be used to intercept or disable drones that get too close to airports. "Remember what happened when two seagulls were sucked into the engines of a flight called the Hudson River miracle," Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) told The Hill. "That's feathers and webbed feet and a beak. Can you imagine the metal and plastic of a drone being sucked into a jet engine?"
To start, SkySafe is hoping to sell its technology to customers who already have regulatory control of their airspace — prisons, power plants, airports, and the like. Jordan says he sees his company’s work as an extension of the work being done by startups like Airmap.io, which recently partnered with 850 of the largest airports around the US to share data between drone operators and air traffic controllers. "Airmap is doing the trusted reporting, the backend piece. We are the front end, the enforcement." SkySafe's position is that it's better to down a drone than for one to collide with an airplane. "We love the fact that the drone industry is taking off. We want it to keep growing," says Jordan. "One bad incident could ruin that."