Game of Drones
Airborne surveillance drones long ago moved from the realm of sci-fi into the real world, and they’re becoming more essential than ever, Jaz Banga tells Marianna Cerini
nce confined to military use, unmanned aerial vehicles have entered our everyday lives over the past decade. They are used in various commercial applications, such as mapmaking and motion pictures, as well as in recreational pursuits. But what happens when and if they’re misused? Most importantly, how do you stop a trespassing drone? California-based Airspace Systems aims to provide an answer to that. Co-founder and CEO Jaz Banga explains how. A hint: it involves more drones. What does Airspace Systems do? We’re leading the development of aerial security systems for enterprises, which in normal language means we build drones that can intercept rogue drones at high speed and carry them away to destroy if necessary. An anti-drone drone, basically.
How do you do that? We’ve developed purpose-built software and hardware to train our good-guy drone—we call it the Interceptor—to detect enemy drones and predict their bearings. It requires physics, a lot of engineering and computer vision. The hardest part, once we first built the Interceptor, was to devise a way through which it could neutralise its prey. Drones can be incredibly heavy, so taking them down on the spot wouldn’t have worked, as you can’t predict where or who they may fall on. Shooting them isn’t an option either; you don’t know what they might carry. We worked on at least 100 prototypes before we found the solution—capture them. The Interceptor fires a Kevlar net onto its target, entangles it and takes it to a safe space.
What prompted you to start the company? I’ve tinkered with drones since my first years in the [Silicon] Valley. I find them fascinating. Starting Airspace was a natural progression from what’s essentially been a hobby for a while. It also stemmed from a very personal concern about the way privacy and security are changing because of these flying machines. Drones are incredibly appealing for their simplicity— you open the box and they’re good to fly within an hour—and their capabilities. But they can also be threatening. As much as I hate to think about it, they can be used for harm and terror. We need to be able to deal with that. Airspace wants to offer a way to do so.
You’ve raised US$8 million from investors such as Sterling.vc, whose owner controls the New York Mets. Are you hoping places like stadiums will employ the Interceptor? Absolutely. Public spaces like airports and corporate offices are also where I see our drone being put to good use. The US Army has shown interest, too—their antidrone technology isn’t as developed as you might think. Private businesses and individuals have started to show interest as well. I think the counter-drone market is slated to become as big as the drone one.
Do you see regulations around the use of drones changing in the future? They have to. I sit on the board of the Drone Advisory Committee in the States, and we’re currently looking at just that. It’s still uncharted territory and certainly needs addressing.
What motivates you? I’m just into solving hard problems. I’ve always thought that when I’m 70 I’d like to look back and say, ‘I brought some real change to this sector’ or ‘I really contributed to improving that issue.’ I hope I’m doing that with my drones.