NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. --- People are buying drones in droves — from cheapo low-rez toys from Amazon to high-end unmanned planes for commercial surveillance and mapping.
And the Pentagon is following suit, with several companies offering new models of unmanned systems for everything from relaying radio signals to targeting bad guys.
But in a constant cat-and-mouse game, the military is also looking into technologies that will help it find, track, and potentially destroy unmanned planes that are just as easily obtained by America's enemies as they are by its friends.
The Silent Archer counter-drone system uses radar, and EO/IR scope and jammer technology to target, track and fix small UAVs and their operators. (Photo from SRC Inc.)
One system the Army is testing for its air defense units uses a portable mortar tracking radar and some repurposed improvised explosive device jammers to find and target small drones for gunners to shoot down. In fact, the system works so well, it's manufacturer says, that it can find the location of the drone's operator and send that targeting information to Army artillery for the kill.
Dubbed the "Silent Archer," parts of the counter-drone system have already been used for high-level meetings like the G-8 Summit and for the 2012 Olympics in the United Kingdom, company officials said during the 2016 Air Force Association Air and Space Conference here.
"We can provide targeting information to laser systems, miniguns to artillery — whatever your weapon of choice is," said Thomas Wilson, VP for radar and sensors business development with Silent Archer maker SRC Inc. "We can also disrupt the control signals, the telemetry signals, the video signals — we can intercept those, we can analyze them, we can jam them in a variety of ways,"
"With those lines of bearing, you can use indirect fires and rain steel on the operator. Which is one of my preferred choices," he added. [clickToTweet tweet="It's a lot easier to hit a guy on the ground than something that's flying. And then he doesn't fly another one." quote="'It's a lot easier to hit a guy on the ground than something that's flying. And then he doesn't fly another one.'"]
Most of the threats come from unauthorized surveillance of key meetings and military sites. But there's also a military threat, Wilson said.
"The Army is watching very carefully what's going on in the Ukraine. Because the Russians are using small UAS for targeting," Wilson said. "The Ukrainians know that when they see a UAS flying over that very shortly they're going to get bombarded."
"So from an Army point of view, in a near-peer kind of a fight, they're looking at ways to counter those," he added.
The system works using a radar that's normally used to detect incoming mortars. Once a suspected UAV is targeted, Silent Archer operators spot the drone through a sophisticated targeting scope. This helps distinguish if the target is actually a drone or a bird, Wilson said. Once it's determined that the Silent Archer has a drone in its sights, an IED-detecting electronic warfare system tracks the drone's controlling signal and can jam it or send targeting information back to artillery for a strike.
While the Silent Archer's range is limited, the system is portable, with the Army testing most of the components on a Stryker armored combat vehicle, Wilson said. So the counter-drone system can move with the troops.
"There's a lot of security threats from small UASs — we're talking commercial stuff — flying over a facility and it's making everybody nervous," Wilson said. "Are they surveilling it for an attack? ... That's one that's got everybody fired up right now."