Po­lice un­leash ‘Drone killer’

New de­vice can dis­able re­mote-con­trolled air­craft

The Register Citizen (Torrington, CT) - - NEWS -

SAN DIEGO — Drones have been used for a lot more than mak­ing videos and de­liv­er­ing piz­zas.

They have dropped drugs into prison yards, scouted out il­le­gal bor­der cross­ings, and grounded life­sav­ing ae­rial fire­fight­ing ef­forts by ac­ci­den­tally wan­der­ing into the flight path.

The sky may be the limit for drones, but lo­cal law en­force­ment agen­cies are look­ing for a way to bring them back to earth.

A new elec­tronic de­vice called a “drone killer” could be the an­swer.

The Ocean­side Po­lice Depart­ment re­cently ac­quired San Diego County’s first drone killer, an elec­tronic de­vice that can dis­able a drone in the sky and force it back to the ground.

Other area law en­force­ment agen­cies also are con­sid­er­ing the tech­nol­ogy as a way to rein in un­manned ae­rial ve­hi­cles, or UAVs.

‘Crit­i­cal to sav­ing lives’

“The pur­pose is pri­mar­ily for emer­gency sit­u­a­tions,” Ocean­side po­lice Lt. Aaron Doyle said. “It won’t be used when some­one com­plains about a neigh­bor fly­ing a drone. It’s pretty much for a life-or-death sit­u­a­tion, to save lives.”

The need arose in De­cem­ber dur­ing North County’s Li­lac fire, which de­stroyed more than 150 struc­tures and forced thou­sands of res­i­dents to flee their homes in the path of the flames. Dur­ing the blaze, some­one sent up a drone that forced ae­rial fire­fight­ing op­er­a­tions to cease for more than an hour to avoid a pos­si­ble col­li­sion.

“Shut­ting down the op­er­a­tions for an hour can be crit­i­cal to sav­ing lives,” Doyle said. “We started look­ing for op­tions in case it hap­pened again.”

The search led of­fi­cers to IXI Tech­nol­ogy in Yorba Linda, a com­pany that has been sup­ply­ing high-tech elec­tronic equip­ment to the U.S. mil­i­tary for 35 years, and a new de­vice it re­leased in 2017. The com­pany agreed to do­nate one of the drone killers, worth about $30,000, and made a for­mal pre­sen­ta­tion to the Po­lice Depart­ment at the Ocean­side City Coun­cil meet­ing on March 28.

“We are the first law en­force­ment agency in San Diego County to have this de­vice,” Po­lice Chief Frank McCoy said at the meet­ing.

The San Diego County Sher­iff ’s Depart­ment also has looked at anti-drone tech­nol­ogy and ac­knowl­edges a need for the de­vices, sher­iff ’s Lt. Karen Stubk­jaer said in an email.

“We cur­rently are not us­ing this type of equip­ment, but have not ruled it out for fu­ture use,” she said. “Ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tions are uti­liz­ing drones as well as or­ga­nized nar­cotic groups. This type of tech­nol­ogy may be im­por­tant in the fu­ture to safe­guard the county jails, court­houses and com­mu­ni­ties.”

The de­vice, which looks like a gun, can be aimed like a ri­fle or a shot­gun at a drone in the air. The 30de­gree field of its beam and its range of al­most a halfmile make the tar­get hard to miss.

“In short, it breaks the com­mand and con­trol be­tween the drone and the op­er­a­tor,” said Andy Morabe of IXI Tech­nol­ogy.

Soft­ware can be up­dated

The air­borne drone, de­pend­ing on how it is pro­grammed, will do one of three things. It will ei­ther re­turn to its “home,” which is the place it was launched, hover in place or go straight to the ground and land.

The com­pany’s an­tidrone de­vice was first used by the Los An­ge­les County Sher­iff’s Depart­ment to pro­tect the 2017 Rose Pa­rade, Morabe said. Since then, it has been used at a num­ber of large pub­lic events around Los An­ge­les.

The de­vice can stop al­most any of the hun­dreds of models of re­motely con­trolled air­craft that are avail­able, Morabe said.

When a new drone is en­coun­tered that the de­vice can’t de­feat, the anti-drone soft­ware will be rewrit­ten to in­clude the new model and an up­date will be is­sued within days, he said. Op­er­a­tors can down­load the up­date from the in­ter­net, just like any new or up­dated app for a phone or com­puter.

Ad­vanc­ing tech­nol­ogy and lower prices have led to a pro­lif­er­a­tion of drones in re­cent years, from the small ones with cam­eras sold on­line and in depart­ment stores to large ones used by the mil­i­tary to carry weapons. Drones have been used by crim­i­nals to drop con­tra­band into prison yards, and by drug car­tels to mon­i­tor the U.S. Mex­ico bor­der, Morabe said.

U.S pen­i­ten­tiaries, the Bor­der Pa­trol, and the mil­i­tary are all in­ter­ested in the anti-drone tech­nol­ogy, he said. Marines at Camp Pendle­ton trained with the de­vice just last month, ac­cord­ing to a story by Reuters news ser­vice.

Law en­force­ment agen­cies across the United States are rapidly adopt­ing the use of drones.

The San Diego County Sher­iff ’s Depart­ment be­came the first law en­force­ment agency in the county to use drones for sur­veil­lance in 2016. The eyes in the sky have as­sisted in dozens of homi­cide in­ves­ti­ga­tions, SWAT in­ci­dents and search-an­dres­cue mis­sions.

The Chula Vista Po­lice Depart­ment bought its first two drones this year, and po­lice in Carls­bad and Es­con­dido have said they are in­ter­ested.

The Ocean­side Po­lice Depart­ment ac­quired its first drone a few months ago, Doyle said.

“It’s a great tool to use to find peo­ple who are miss­ing,” he said, whether it’s an Alzheimer’s pa­tient who just walked away from home, or a crim­i­nal flee­ing a crime. The drone has a heat-sen­si­tive in­frared cam­era to help lo­cate peo­ple at night.

‘Still in in­fancy’

“Right now, we can only fly it dur­ing the day,” he said. “The pro­gram is still in its in­fancy.”

Of­fi­cers are work­ing to be­come cer­ti­fied by the Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion and to es­tab­lish lo­cal poli­cies for when drones and the anti-drone de­vice can or should be used.

Ocean­side’s lo­ca­tion next to Camp Pendle­ton Marine Corps Base, where train­ing fre­quently causes brush fires, in­creases the need for a way to con­trol drones dur­ing emer­gen­cies, Doyle said.

The Ocean­side City Coun­cil gave its ini­tial ap­proval to a drone ordinance Nov. 1 and is still await­ing a fi­nal ver­sion. That ordinance, when fin­ished later this year, is ex­pected to pro­hibit drones over oc­cu­pied schools and some other pub­lic places and may re­quire a per­mit to op­er­ate drones in some sit­u­a­tions.

Po­lice of­ten hear com­plaints about drones in­vad­ing peo­ple’s pri­vacy and in some cases cre­at­ing a safety haz­ard. Last year, a drone hit an un­sus­pect­ing beach­goer, caus­ing a mi­nor in­jury, near the Ocean­side pier.

Sev­eral cities al­ready have adopted poli­cies for the use of drones.

Poway ap­proved an ordinance in 2015 that re­stricts the use of drones over much of the city, but of­fi­cials said it will only be en­forced in emer­gen­cies, such as to pro­tect air­craft fight­ing wild­fires.

The county Board of Su­per­vi­sors last year pro­hib­ited the use of am­a­teur drones within three miles of a fire or any other area de­clared off-lim­its for an emer­gency.

Hayne Pal­mour IV / Tri­bune News Ser­vice

Ocean­side, Calif., po­lice of­fi­cer Mark Bussey aims the “drone killer,” which brings the drone back to the ground by hit­ting it with ra­dio waves that break the drone op­er­a­tor’s com­mand and con­trol con­nec­tion. Be­low, Bussey zaps a drone in a demon­stra­tion.

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