Testing Anti-Drone Solutions (Ranging From Clever to Overkill)

Jason Lomberg, Editor, North America, PSD



In a world where many people would rather discharge shotguns at UAVs flying anywhere near their property than tolerate a drone delivery service, it’s hardly surprising that drone defense is a hot topic. So a comprehensive evaluation of some of the most ingenious (and hyperbolic) anti-drone devices was in order. Security consulting firm Bishop Fox recently performed a full battery of tests (audited by Wired, among others) on several commercial anti-drone solutions, and the results were ... illuminating.

Whether it’s multimillion-dollar corporate espionage or real (or imagined) civil-liberties violations, the threat of drones to an unwitting populace is genuine. Flying, hi-resolution cameras can uncover closely-guarded company secrets or spy on Hollywood movie sets. They can perform all the perverted and immoral surveillance that humans can (but with a distinct height and reach advantage).

But the solutions to this very real threat are a mixed bag. They range from clever to the equivalent of using an a-bomb to obliterate an earthworm.

The SparrowHawk is an anti-drone system developed by specialist engineers, ex-military, and security product developers to provide a “practical, physical interception of unmanned aircraft vehicles.” Fair enough.

In a military setting, lasers, guided micro munitions, anti-aerial mines, and small arms fire can bring down drones. Jamming technology can disrupt a drone’s wireless control mechanism, but it can also potentially jam civilian aircraft. None of these solutions are practical in a domestic setting. So the SparrowHawk utilizes mostly analog solutions to counter the threat of UAVs without putting bystanders in danger.

That all sounds reasonable.

Now, shooting a shotgun shell that deploys “compressed nets of thin mesh and metal weights”? That’s a tad overkill. And a firearm disguised as a flashlight that shoots nets a mere 45-50 feet? That’s just silly.

The “Skynet Shot Gun Shells” (yes, that’s the real name), available in 12 gauge through 40 mm – in menacing ammo configurations including “less lethal,” “semi-lethal,” and “fully-lethal” – include a “Wide Envelopment Bullet” design that deploys a net and pieces of metal to knock drones out of the sky.

While these modified shells aren’t typical shotgun ammo, you wouldn’t want to be downrange of them. As Bishop Fox co-founder Francis Brown confirmed in his tests, "If you got shot in the chest with this, you would die." And the damage done to a human-like target in tests performed by The Firearm Blog should be enough to keep the Skynet Shot Gun Shells far away from anything living.

“Net Guns” look like Maglites (sin #1 for associating a less-than-perfect device with a treasured engineering accessory), and even when functioning perfectly, only shoot their payload (nets) 45-50 feet. They also don’t work in the heat, apparently, so Bishop Fox could only make them shoot a couple feet in the Arizona testing location.

The SparrowHawk presented the simplest (albeit, most expensive) solution, and not coincidentally, it proved the most effective in Bishop Fox’s tests. Like a fisherman trying to snag some shrimp (or coral large marine mammals), the SparrowHawk deploys a large net beneath it and tries to chase and capture the offending drone.

You wouldn’t think that a high-tech version of catching butterflies is more effective at snagging drones than a shotgun, but the SparrowHawk worked surprisingly well. Provided the drone intruder can’t outrun it, the SparrowHawk easily overtakes and captures most civilian-model flying menaces. And it does it without shooting the drone out of the sky (or causing potential collateral damage).

I’m a bit alarmed that civilian drones have become so menacing that anyone would consider shooting anything – lethal or otherwise – in their general direction, but if anyone has a spare $11,000, I’d love to get my hands on a SparrowHawk.