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How big a threat are drones on Inauguration Day?

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Small, cheap units have become very powerful

GoPro Karma and stabilizer grip in photos

The security detail protecting politicians and onlookers at Donald Trump’s inauguration have a new threat to consider this year: drones. The aircraft any consumer can buy off the shelf have become significantly more powerful since the last time a new presidential administration was welcomed in the US in 2008.

“Weaponized drones definitely pose a threat to large public gatherings, including the inauguration. But how concerned we should be about drones versus more traditional threats is tough to judge,” says Grant Jordan, CEO of the drone defense startup SkySafe. “Sophisticated, highly motivated attackers have been able to utilize drones of some sort (like RC planes) for a long time, but the big change in the last 3–5 years has been a dramatic drop in cost and complexity. Current drones are cheap, easy to fly, and able to function mostly autonomously.”

The Secret Service has been thinking about this problem for at least two years. Back in February of 2015 a drone crash-landed on the White House lawn. The incident made headlines around the globe and prompted the president’s protectors to begin flying their own drones and practicing techniques for detecting and taking down rogue aircraft.

“At a high-profile event like this, you're going to see military-grade systems like radar and heavy jammers. The Secret Service isn't going to take any chances and they're not going to be concerned about potentially interfering with other wireless systems when it counts,” says Jordan. “Like any other threat though, there will also be a reliance on human spotters and snipers as a last resort.”

The rise of the drone industry over the last few years has also created a wider market for tools to defend against drones entering restricted airspace. Airports, prisons, and power plants all have good reason to keep drones from getting too close. But the small, mostly plastic quadcopters sold on Amazon and at stores like Best Buy can be very hard to detect on radar, and can fly autonomously on a preprogrammed path miles away from their takeoff, even if their radio signal is shut off.

“The cartels are doing it to send drugs across the border and do route reconnaissance. It’s much cheaper, much harder to detect,” says Jonathan Hunter, an expert is countering improvised explosive devices and CEO of the drone defense startup Department 13. “Until someone finds a really good way to stop this, it will be the weapon of choice.”

To identify incoming drones, startups like DroneShield listen for specific acoustic signals. It has learned the sonic signatures of many common consumer drones, and claims it can differentiate the buzz of a drone from everyday noise or other legal aircraft. Others, like SkySafe, look for radio signals that indicate the presence of drones.

Even a drone that has been preprogrammed to a fly a certain course will often still emit a GPS signal that can be tracked. “It’s a failsafe they put in most consumer drones,” Hunter explained.

Once a drone is detected, the question becomes how best to deal with it. All kinds of creative methods have been demonstrated recently, because who doesn’t love an internet video of a drone getting taken out by a eagle or net-launching bazooka? But if the goal is to protect a large crowd of people from a drone equipped with an explosive device, simply dropping it out of the air is probably not the best solution.

SkySafe, along with other startups like Department 13, claim they can take control of rogue drones. This is done by jamming the incoming signal from the drone’s original pilot or replacing it with one of your own, a technique known as spoofing. Another tactic tricks the drones GPS system, making the drone believe it’s properly executing its mission, while actually moving it to safe coordinates.

Drone companies like DJI, for there part, are hesitant to use geofencing widely, since it might be interfere with drones doing good work. “DJI's geofencing system is focused on fixed geographical locations that raise heightened aviation safety or national security concerns, such as airports and nuclear power plants,” says Brendan Schulman, DJI’s vice president of policy and legal affairs. “Although we have the ability to add geofencing locations temporarily, as we did with the Olympic Games in Rio, doing so over large geographical areas could impede the beneficial use of drones by emergency responders, firefighters, and journalists, to name just a few.”

The issue of who has the right to take down drones, and how, came to the fore during the recent protests at Standing Rock, when police and private security were reportedly shooting down drones flown by protestors and journalists. But following the crash on the White House lawn, DJI did create a geofence that prohibits its drones from flying, or even taking off, within a 30-mile radius of the Capitol.

Bypassing this restriction would require augmenting the drone beyond what comes right out of the box. “Protections like geofencing have been shown to be easy to bypass and are ineffective when a person is motivated to be where they shouldn't be. Right now, all of the greater DC area is geofenced, but that doesn't stop people from flying there,” says Jordan.

Both Jordan and Hunter felt that, while the inauguration was almost certainly well protected, growing awareness of this technology would lead to an increase in experiments with weaponizing consumer-grade drones. “There's a bit of sensationalism around the threat of drones for this one event, but in general the threat is something new that all sorts of public events and venues need to start thinking about,” said Jordan. “ISIS has shown a serious drone weaponization effort in Mosul and they've demonstrated just how effective it can be; other malicious actors are going to take notice.”