In the wars of the not-so-dis­tant fu­ture, drones might be the most prized weapons

IT was late Au­gust and In­dia’s se­cu­rity es­tab­lish­ment sud­denly sat up af­ter an in­ci­dent in Pun­jab. An anony­mous caller tipped off the Am­rit­sar (ru­ral) po­lice of a ‘fan-like gad­get’ ly­ing in a paddy field in Muhawa vil­lage of the dis­trict. With the re­cov­ery of a sec­ond drone a month later in Tarn Taran dis­trict, the Pun­jab po­lice pieced to­gether an au­da­cious plan by the Pak­istan-based Khal­is­tan Zind­abad Force to in­fil­trate weapons from across the in­ter­na­tional bor­der. Four hex­a­copter drones—each around two-feet-wide and ca­pa­ble of car­ry­ing a 4 kg pay­load—had flown mul­ti­ple sor­ties to fly in nearly 80 kg of arms and am­mu­ni­tion, in­clud­ing AK-ri­fles, pis­tols and fake cur­rency. It was, as Pun­jab chief min­is­ter Capt. Amarinder Singh said in a tweet, ‘a new and se­ri­ous di­men­sion on Pak­istan’s sin­is­ter de­signs in the af­ter­math of the ab­ro­ga­tion of Ar­ti­cle 370’.

The in­ci­dent sparked off con­cern among the po­lice, para­mil­i­tary and the army alike. All at once, it looked like the Union home min­istry’s snazzy smart-fence project—in the works for a decade and cost­ing thou­sands of crores—could prove po­ten­tially pow­er­less for it has been de­signed only to stop in­trud­ers from phys­i­cally cross­ing the in­ter­na­tional bound­ary. Aerial in­cur­sions were a dif­fer­ent ball­game. The ques­tion ev­ery­one is ask­ing in North and South Block, which house the min­istries of home and de­fence, is: how ex­actly do you counter rogue drones?


What would it take to stop an ex­plo­sive-laden drone from fly­ing into the path of a pas­sen­ger air­craft when it is at its most vul­ner­a­ble—land­ing or tak­ing off. How to stop ‘kamikaze’ drones from crash­ing into crowds at a Kumbh Mela or fly­ing di­rectly into a VVIP en­clo­sure at an im­por­tant pub­lic event?

Mul­ti­ple agen­cies, in­clud­ing the IAF, the Bureau of Civil Avi­a­tion and Se­cu­rity (BCAS), which op­er­ates un­der the min­istry of civil avi­a­tion, and the Spe­cial Pro­tec­tion Group that han­dles VIP se­cu­rity, are scram­bling to ad­dress the threat. The gov­ern­ment is also run­ning field tri­als of coun­terun­manned aerial sys­tems (C-UAS) like the one

con­ducted by the BSF at its camp in Bhondsi, Haryana, last month.

Task forces ap­pointed by the Bureau of Po­lice Re­search and De­vel­op­ment and min­istry of civil avi­a­tion are iden­ti­fy­ing a list of sen­si­tive in­stal­la­tions that need C-UAS pro­tec­tion and draw­ing up a stan­dard op­er­at­ing pro­ce­dure for law en­force­ment agen­cies on what to do in the event of a rogue strike. In­dia’s Repub­lic Day pa­rade in Jan­uary 2018 was among the first pub­lic events where se­cu­rity forces were specif­i­cally equipped with radars and anti-air­craft guns to counter rogue drones.

The Tarn Taran episode was the cul­mi­na­tion of a year of hand-wring­ing in­ci­dents where rogue drones have been in the news glob­ally. Each in­ci­dent il­lus­trated the abil­ity of even cheap off-the-shelf drones to trans­form the way ter­ror­ists carry out at­tacks—from the as­sas­si­na­tion at­tempt on Venezue­lan pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Maduro last Au­gust, where two drones packed with ex­plo­sives ex­ploded at a mil­i­tary pa­rade in Cara­cas just me­tres away from where he was speak­ing, to Jan­uary this year, when Houthi rebels used com­mer­cially avail­able quad­copters to at­tack a Ye­meni mil­i­tary pa­rade, killing six peo­ple. That drones rep­re­sent one of the big­gest shifts in aerial war­fare was never in doubt. The US was the first to weaponise or­di­nary re­con­nais­sance drones with mis­siles and use them as killing ma­chines to hunt down Tal­iban and Al Qaeda in the Af-Pak re­gion. On Septem­ber 14, Houthi rebels, fight­ing a Saudi Ara­bia-led coali­tion in Ye­men, used ex­plo­sive-laden drones in a pre-dawn at­tack on two Saudi re­finer­ies. The dev­as­ta­tion led to the world’s largest oil pro­ducer cut­ting oil out­put by half. Fixed-wing drones like the Preda­tor, which fly longer and faster, mer­ci­fully, are still out of the reach of non-state ac­tors. For now.

What In­dian se­cu­rity agen­cies are wor­ried about is the avail­abil­ity of cheap quad­copters and hex­a­copters—mini he­li­copter-like drones, which can land and take off ver­ti­cally—like the ones used in Pun­jab. The GPS-fit­ted ‘Tarot 680 Pro’ drones are man­u­fac­tured by a Chi­nese com­pany. Its mak­ers ad­ver­tise its use as an aerial pho­tog­ra­phy tool, but its ca­pa­bil­i­ties make it an ideal dual-use ve­hi­cle: it can be used just as eas­ily to deliver an ex­plo­sive pay­load. A DJI M600 Ma­trice com­mer­cial drone, a more so­phis­ti­cated ver­sion of the Tarot, costs around $5,000 (Rs 3.5 lakh) and can carry a 7 kilo pay­load for over 6 km. The tech­nol­ogy is sim­ple and gives at­tack­ers the abil­ity to at­tack anony­mously and from afar. “Ex­ploita­tion of airspace with weapons was the priv­i­lege of the state and its mil­i­taries so far,” says Com­modore Shiv Te­wari, a for­mer spe­cial forces of­fi­cer. “Drones us­ing low end com­mer­cially avail­able tech­nol­ogy have snatched that ad­van­tage.”

‘Coun­ter­ing Rogue Drones’, a re­port re­leased by FICCI and Ernst & Young this Au­gust, points out the risks—‘Drones are con­trolled over wire­less links with a typ­i­cal span of con­trol be­ing over 2 km. This makes it pos­si­ble for it to be con­trolled from any­where within a 13 sq. km area—an area larger than an In­dian city sub­urb. This makes trac­ing a drone oper­a­tor a prac­ti­cally im­pos­si­ble task.’ “Drones are small, hard to de­tect and travel quite fast, cov­er­ing 20 me­tres a sec­ond. The re­ac­tion win­dow, from the time you de­tect them to the time you come up with a counter, is very lim­ited, just 90 sec­onds or so,” says Tan­may Bunkar, CEO of Botlab Dy­nam­ics, an IIT Delhi-based startup.


In­dia’s civil avi­a­tion min­istry an­nounced the first drone pol­icy last year, seek­ing to reg­u­late an in­dus­try that Gold­man Sachs es­ti­mates will reach $100 bil­lion by 2020. The pol­icy, which came into ef­fect in De­cem­ber 2018, calls for all drones to be reg­is­tered and is­sued a unique iden­ti­fi­ca­tion num­ber, and for a per­mit to be ob­tained for all drones flown above 50 feet. Drones are pro­hib­ited near no-fly zones like air­ports and sen­si­tive mil­i­tary ar­eas. Fly­ers also have to ob­tain per­mis­sion via a mobile app in a sys­tem called ‘No Per­mis­sion, No Take­off ’ (NPNT). If per­mis­sion is not given, a drone can­not take off. “But ter­ror­ists are un­likely to fly a reg­is­tered drone and hence NPNT is of no use,” says an In­dian drone sci­en­tist. The FICCI-E&Y re­port points to the risk posed by a la­tent pop­u­la­tion of close to 50,000 drones op­er­at­ing in In­dia prior to the drone pol­icy no­ti­fi­ca­tion in Au­gust 2018.

That’s where C-UAS step in. Trans­parency Mar­ket Re­search es­ti­mates this in­dus­try will touch a healthy $1.2 bil­lion by 2025. Mul­ti­ple agen­cies within In­dia, in­clud­ing those from the state and Cen­tre, are work­ing on ways to counter rogue drones, ei­ther de­vel­op­ing the tech­nol­ogy in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the pri­vate sec­tor or im­port­ing them off-theshelf. The Is­raeli ‘Iron Dome’ air de­fence sys­tem, which uses a net­work of mis­siles and radars to pro­tect cities, is on the radar.

“Drones and anti-drone tech­nol­ogy are on our prime agenda con­sid­er­ing the cur­rent threat sce­nario,” a DRDO spokesper­son says. The Goa po­lice have de­vel­oped and de­ployed a sys­tem to track and iden­tify rogue drones, es­pe­cially over crowded ar­eas us­ing ra­dio-fre­quency scan­ner tech­nol­ogy. A com­plete C-UAS, the FICCI-E&Y re­port says, must be ca­pa­ble of de­tect­ing, track­ing as well as in­ter­cept­ing drones. De­tect­ing and track­ing a UAS is dif­fi­cult be­cause con­ven­tional radars are meant to de­tect fast-fly­ing large metal­lic air­craft whereas drones usu­ally have the radar cross-sec­tion of a large bird. De­tect­ing a UAS re­quires spe­cialised mil­i­tary-grade high-fre­quency radars. Interdicti­on and neu­tral­i­sa­tion of a UAS can only be done us­ing a mix­ture of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ kill mea­sures (see How to de­feat...).

Most of these tech­nolo­gies are de­ployed in the ter­mi­nal stage of a rogue drone’s flight path, in the last hun­dred me­tres or so, when there is very lit­tle re­ac­tion time. It would be hard for a de­fence sys­tem to pre­cisely iden­tify a rogue drone’s vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties and then de­ploy counter-mea­sures. Ex­perts like Bunkar point out that smart drone tech­nol­ogy and counter-tech­nol­ogy are es­ca­lat­ing too rapidly for ef­fec­tive re­sponses to be brought to bear. “There are cur­rently nearly four lay­ers of counter-mea­sures in drone tech­nol­ogy, this will con­tinue to es­ca­late,” he says. So, for in­stance, if the GPS sig­nals that a drone uses to guide it­self to the tar­get are jammed, it could switch fre­quen­cies or use visual ref­er­ences as a guide. Jam­ming an in­com­ing drone’s sig­nal will not work in the case of a drone that is fly­ing ‘silent’, guided by means of pre-fed data co­or­di­nates.

The trou­ble with most of these tech­nolo­gies is that there is re­ally no one-size-fits-all. Agen­cies that have spent mil­lions of ru­pees in im­ports have found lim­i­ta­tions to the equip­ment. One se­cu­rity force op­er­at­ing un­der the Union home min­istry in Delhi re­cently im­ported a high-pow­ered elec­tro­mag­netic (HPEM) sys­tem. An HPEM sys­tem zaps drones with an elec­tro­mag­netic pulse, caus­ing them to crash-land safely. The se­cu­rity force found it could not de­ploy this sys­tem at air­ports be­cause of the risk the HPEM posed to in­com­ing air­craft. De­ploy­ing them in other crowded spa­ces ran the risk of HPEM fry­ing the cir­cuitry of other gad­gets nearby. Many ex­ist­ing counter-mea­sures will be pow­er­less against a swarm at­tack—a pack of drones fly­ing into their tar­gets from mul­ti­ple di­rec­tions. The next big scare for which there are few an­swers yet. ■

Fire at will North­ern Army Com­man­der Lt Gen. Ran­bir Singh at an army tech­nol­ogy sem­i­nar in Ud­ham­pur, Sept. 29; satel­lite image of Saudi Ara­bia’s Khu­rais oil field af­ter the drone at­tack

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