From his headquarters in a burgeoning industrial park off U.S. 41 in Tampa, the head of a drone technology firm said the recent scare at London’s Gatwick International Airport was yet another red flag about the potential for danger, accidental or intentional, posed by drones.
Last month, more than 140,000 passengers were delayed by the cancellation of more than 1,000 flights at Gatwick over concern that drones were being illegally flown in the area, according to reports.
The incident, still under investigation, “shows the need to have a proactive approach” to detecting and acting against potential drone threats, said Ryan English, CEO and co-founder of FLYMOTION. Among other things, the company created five years ago provides innovative technology, including drone support, to local, state and federal law enforcement and first responder agencies and the Department of Defense. FLYMOTION also helps detect drones in real time so that counter measures can be taken as soon as they get off the ground.
One recent example took place at the Fort Lauderdale Airshow in May, English said.
Brought in by the Fort Lauderdale Police Department to help protect the show, which featured the Navy’s Blue Angel aerial demonstration team, FLYMOTION detected 46 drone flights in the temporary flight restriction zone set up by the Federal Aviation Administration. Seven of those drones were detected in the airspace where the performances were taking place. By tracing the drone signals back to the base station operating them, FLYMOTION helped police track down some of those disregarding the rules.
By honing in on the radio frequency links between the base stations and drones, FLYMOTION “detected, identified and located all 46 flights,” said English, a veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard, Hillsborough County Fire Rescue and the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.
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The weaponization of drones is an increasing concern for the military and law enforcement.
In 2016, the Iraqi offensive against the Islamic State in Mosul "almost came to a screeching halt" because of weaponized drones worth just $2,000 or so each, according to Army Gen. Raymond A. "Tony" Thomas III, head of U.S. Special Operations Command. At one point, Thomas said, there were 12 enemy drones — "killer bees," he called them — "dropping 40mm nuggets. It was an immediate challenge."
In October, FBI director Christopher Wray told the Senate Homeland Security Committee that the threat from drones “is steadily escalating,” according to Reuters. His comments came days after President Donald Trump signed into law legislation that gives the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI new powers to disable or destroy drones that pose a threat to government facilities.
A month later, Homeland Security officials put out a request seeking information about counter drone measures because drones “have quickly become a security concern due to the ease with which they can aid in intelligence gathering and/or be used as a malicious delivery platform.”
And in December, the New York City Police Department announced it would be operating its own fleet of drones for aerial surveillance.
Drones are also a big concern of U.S. Special Operations Command, headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base. In 2017, the command helped sponsor what it called the "Game of Drones" contest, offering more than $600,000 in prize money to help find the best ways of countering small drones that threaten U.S. and allied forces.
The contest was held in Nevada, sponsored by SOCom along with two other organizations: Afwerx, an Air Force technology incubator, and the Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office.
It kicked off locally at the Sofwerx incubator in Ybor City, which continues to explore drone technology.
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FLYMOTION operates out of a 3,000 square-foot facility, owns dozens of drones and has a fleet of vehicles including a Mercedes Sprinter van outfitted as a mobile command center. English co-founded the company with a fellow first responder veteran named David Stratchko. One of the many technology solutions the company provides is a system that can detect drones for about a 35-mile radius. As an example of just how many drones are flying around Tampa, the system has detected 534 drone flights since Dec. 1 from its headquarters in an area that includes both MacDill and Tampa International Airport.
Emily Nipps, a spokeswoman for TIA, said the airport does not have drone countering technology because the FAA has stated that they are working on the issue and do not want airports creating their own anti-drone programs.
English said because of domestic legal and liability issues, his company relies on technology that pinpoints where drones are launched from so that authorities can respond.
Skip Parish, a Sarasota drone inventor, said that after the Gatwick incident, he told Sussex Police to consider technology to track drone controllers, coupled with a hard kill laser cannon which “targets and downs” small drones greater than two miles away.
Drones now “have the ability to travel faster than a Vietnam-era A4 fighter jet in vertical acceleration,” said Parish, who has worked on counter drone measures with both the U.S. military and NATO. “They can be carried in a backpack, and can navigate without human control links while at the same time using machine vision to ID and act on ground and air objects.”
The future, said Parish, is worrisome.
“Given that near future civilian small drones can get internal guidance — without the need for GPS — and use AI machine vision we now find programed in computer games, the outlook for protection of sensitive areas is not optimistic at best,” he said.
Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112 . Follow @haltman.