The Ukraine war has revealed that C-UAS equipment must now be a fundamental part of any military force.
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are now a staple for most militaries, but the ability to counter them has lagged considerably. Thanks to the Nagorno-Karabakh 2020 conflict and ongoing Ukraine War, armed forces are belatedly recognising the need to field effective air defence umbrellas against both commercial and military-specification UAVs.
Bad actors can also shut down international airports with just a quadcopter, or conduct coordinated attacks with a small budget and little prior training. Therefore, just as UAVs and loitering munitions have burgeoned in the past two decades, so too demand for counter-UAS (C-UAS) systems is set to multiply. According to Allied Market Research, the global C-UAS market was worth $1.3 billion in 2021, and is projected to reach $14.6 billion by 2031, growing at a compound annual growth rate of 27.9 percent.
Two broad C-UAS categories exist – hard-kill defeat that physically disables a UAV, or soft-kill defeat to render aircraft harmless by disrupting their radio frequency (RF) spectrum. Soft-kill RF disruption could involve either jamming or cyber takeover.
Disruption usually relies on passive RF direction-finding sensors, which can be supplemented by electro-optical cameras and radars. If tied together by vendor-agnostic command-and-control (C2) software, this will really future-proof it.
Signal jamming can interrupt any of three links: the operator-to-drone command stream, drone-to-operator first-person video stream or global navigation satellite system reception. RF jamming is the most popular C-UAS method since it can defeat broader categories of drones. With their connection cut, quadcopter-type drones hover and land while fixed-wing ones tend to crash.
Asian Military Review spoke to Oleg Vornik, CEO of Sydney-based DroneShield, about C-UAS technology. He pointed out drawbacks with cyber takeover, or protocol manipulation, which hacks into connections between the drone and controller and takes control of the aircraft. “The reason we don’t do that is because we consider it highly unreliable in the sense that you’re trying to break the encryption, and there are thousands of protocols out there.”
Indeed, protocol manipulation relies on a previously reverse-engineered library of command streams, so protocol changes by drone manufacturers can neutralise this method. Furthermore, UAVs with encrypted communications are immune to it.
Naturally, militaries require their C-UAS systems to always work, and not just some of the time. “The great thing about smart jamming, which is what we supply, is it’s certain to work. While protocol manipulation is amazing when it works, often it doesn’t,” Vornik explained. Cyber takeover does not work well against swarms either, as it has to break into individual protocols one by one. On the other hand, with RF jamming “it does not matter how many UAVs come into an area; all of them will get affected the same time”.
UAVs are difficult to detect with cameras because they operate in three dimensions, plus radars need to filter out birds, planes or moving trees. Vornik, who started Drone-Shield nine years ago, elaborated: “For any kind of drone detection system, it’s very important to have a low false-alarm rate. It’s a bit like a fire alarm, right? You want it to ring when there’s a fire, but equally important, you don’t want it doing that if there’s no fire.”
Illustrating the technology advancements inherent in portable C-UAS systems, DroneShield’s first Ghostbuster-style system of late 2016 had a 5kg rifle and hefty 10kg backpack. Its later DroneGun Tactical weighed 11 pounds (7.3 kilograms), and the newest pistol-type DroneGun MkIII weighing just 5.5lb (2.5kg) carries more capability than the original 33lb (15kg) drone gun! These weapons produce a cone of RF jamming, and could equally be used against unmanned ground vehicles.
DroneShield also created the RfPatrol hand-held/body-worn device weighing just 1.7lb (800g). Originally developed for Australian special forces, it detects UAVs by listening for the handshake between drone and controller, and indicates the direction to the drone.
Vornik described customer demand for more permanent, mast-mounted systems that can be paired with cameras and miniaturised radars for 360° base protection. The Australian company’s autonomous DroneSentry is integrated by a C2 system, this software showing where UAVs are and providing detailed analytics. Vornik noted its latest step was a vehicle- and ship-based system called DroneSentry-X.
Vornik said there is no cat-and-mouse competition between drones and counter-drone systems in the commercial world, “because no drone manufacturer wants their drone to be used for nefarious purposes”. Nor does counter-jamming really exist, especially since small UAVs have no space for such systems.
“In the military it’s a little different, but because I think the industry is so nascent, you don’t really see drone manufacturers building defences against counter-drone systems yet. A lot of military drones tend to be very large as well, so systems against them are more like ground-based air defence … [It’s] not really what we do, which is defence against small drones. The two are completely complementary, meaning we’re not effective against big drones, whereas ground-based air defence cannot tackle small drones.”
DroneShield keeps a library of different drones, updated quarterly, but AI-based software helps detect unknown drones since it knows what drones look like in the RF, radar and visual spectrums.
Hard-defeat effectors include bullets, lasers, high-powered microwave weapons and nets. Vornik explained, “Those have a place, but the issue is there’s collateral damage as all these projectiles need to land somewhere,” as does a UAV that might be carrying explosives.
He also acknowledged that it’s very difficult to target drones, since they are typically dinner plate-sized objects flying at 20 metres-per-second (m/s). “I’ve been on firing ranges where trained marines in the US take maybe ten shots before they could get a drone 160 feet (50 metres) away, because it’s just so difficult.”
Last November, DroneShield entered into a partnership with US company Epirus, which makes high-powered microwaves that fry electrics. DroneShield has not integrated a laser yet, though. “A laser needs to stay on target for a particular period of time before it becomes useful,” Vornik said. “So issue number one is you need to be very accurate aiming, because imagine that dinner plate moving around, it’s very small, it’s very fast. Now imagine you have 20 of them coming at you, and you try to laser them off one by one. It’s a very exquisite system, but the great thing about say a high-powered microwave is that it can impact a number of targets at the same time.”
Australian-based Electro Optic Systems (EOS) is one company offering hard-kill C-UAS systems. Matt Jones, executive vice-president of EOS Defence Systems, told AMR there are huge benefits to using remote-controlled weapon stations (RWS) against both ground targets and UAVs. Instead of investing in new vehicles, a modern RWS on a legacy platform can instantly and cost-effectively create a C-UAS system.
As can be imagined, numerous rounds fired into the air at UAVs still have to land somewhere. New-generation smart munitions have fail-safe proximity fuses, so Jones said that lightweight 30mm cannons on EOS’s R400S RWS, and the Bushmaster Mk44S 30mm cannon on the R800S, are unlikely to create significant damage since their rounds will detonate in the air.
Of course, it is possible to use highly expensive missiles to destroy cheap UAVs, but in wars of attrition where ammunition is finite, simple economics demand their prudent use. This is where directed-energy weapons have advantages, since they are only constrained by the maintenance of electrical power.
At the Avalon Airshow 2023, EOS exhibited its 34kW laser engagement system. This modular system “is designed in time to be to be fitted in the back of an 8×8 armoured fighting vehicle as a deployable tactical-vehicle platform. The power level is currently 34kW, we’re actually going to take that to 55kW, and we think that’s a sweet spot in terms of the amount of power and size of the laser,” Jones shared.
The 55kW laser will have a 2.5 mile (4km) range. “Our programme will see the power go up, but also the physical size reduce, as we finalise the design of various subsystems. That’s progressing pretty well,” Jones related.
More powerful lasers give additional range and shorter engagement times. To defeat swarm targets, EOS’s aim is to hit 20 drones per minute, aided by a gimbal that rotates 360° and turns over a hemisphere in less than a second.
EOS has fired lasers against hovering drones at 2,600 feet (800m) ranges, and it takes less than a second to knock them out. Hitting a quadcopter would fry the electronics or cook the battery, but technology is getting smarter about where to precisely engage a larger UAV. EOS boasts of unique beam-steering technology that allows the laser to hit vulnerable wing roots, tail planes or fuel tanks, for example, to cause a structural defeat.
Jones said lasers can be very discriminate in terms of application and power levels. Nonetheless, Geneva conventions regulate the use of lasers to prevent blinding people, for example. Ironically, this plays to the strength of laser systems since they are used to target unmanned platforms.
Jones of EOS spoke of other advantages of lasers. “The benefit with a laser is that engagements happen at the speed of light.” If line of sight is achieved, it can engage a drone. Another advantage compared to guns is that lasers can shoot vertically, whereas cannon systems can shoot only at oblique angles. Cannons are good at low-level engagements up to 70°, whereas lasers can handle 70°-90° elevations. Lasers offer longer-range engagements too, beyond the 1.2 miles (2km) range of cannons.
EOS markets the Titanis C-UAS system that can combine RF detection, camera, radar, hard-kill and directed-energy effectors from various suppliers. An agnostic system like Titanis is ideal, since customers may already have jammers or surveillance radars that can be integrated into its non-ITAR C2 system developed by Australian firm Acacia Systems. EOS has not explored high-powered microwave weapons, but these could potentially be added to Titanis.
Jones said, “The laser or directed-energy effector is one of a complementary range of systems. In a military context it has a lot of advantages, but there are always some disadvantages and this is where cannons, jammers and other things fill different gaps.”
Jones concluded, “There is no one solution you can use to counter UAVs, no silver bullet … I think the most important thing is the layering, because there’s not one answer for everything.” Furthermore, the C2 backbone must ensure the right effector is engaging the right target at the right time.
“There is no one solution you can use to counter UAVs, no silver bullet …”
Elsewhere in Australia, AIM Defence opened the Southern Hemisphere’s largest directed-energy test range in Melbourne on 18 March. The 2,000m² indoor range was funded by Australia’s air force. AIM Defence co-founder Jae Daniel commented, “The ability to rapidly test and iterate laser technology without the need to conduct expensive outdoor trials provides Australia with the competitive edge needed to cement its already considerable lead in compact counter-drone technology.”
As well as Dazlr and Disruptr C-UAS systems, AIM Defence describes its 110lb (50kg) Fractl as the “world’s most powerful, portable, high-energy laser”. It can hit a 60mph (100km/h) drone half a mile (1km) away with a beam the size of a 10 cent piece.
Further, QinetiQ Australia was selected to develop and manufacture a high-energy defensive laser prototype for land and seaborne application for the Department of Defence. The three-year contract piggybacks off QinetiQ’s laser research in the UK.
In September 2022, HIFraser Group announced it would US company Flex Force’s partner in Australia and New Zealand. Flex Force’s Dronebuster is the only handheld electronic attack system authorised by the US Department of Defence and can tackle commercial off-the-shelf drones.
TRD in Singapore has sold C-UAS systems to all 11 Southeast Asian nations, and has been seeking a foothold in North America, Latin America and the Middle East. Reflecting the explosion of interest in C-UAS, TRD’s sales revenue quadrupled from $5 million in 2018 to $20 million in 2020. The firm predicts sales will exceed $150 million by 2025.
In 2021, TRD launched its Orion-I Mini portable solution comprising a 3D radar, RF sensor, camera and multiband jammer mounted on a coaxial pan tilt; it weighs less than 330lb (150kg). Meanwhile, its Orion C-UAS system has been exported to more than 16 countries, and one significant $10 million contract was for 12 vehicle-based C-UAS solutions for Thailand.
TRD debuted its Orion-H+ at Singapore Airshow 2020, with the handheld weapon expanding its coverage from three bands to six bands. TRD told AMR there is growing demand for mobile solutions, since VVIPs are vulnerable driving in convoys.
UAV jammers are a priority for the Indian Army too. On 20 January, it issued a request for proposals (RfP) for 200 man-portable UAV jammers featuring a detection range of over three miles (5km) and jamming range of 1.2 miles (2km). Its power supply should permit continuous operation of two hours. Shortly after, on 24 January, the Indian Army released an RfP for 20 vehicle-mounted jammers possessing a six mile (10km) detection range.
India typically seeks locally manufactured solutions, but fortunately the state-owned Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has developed a C-UAS system that has completed trials by the armed forces. The DRDO partnered with Adani Defence and Aerospace to begin manufacture of the Drone Detect, Deter and Destroy (D4) C-UAS system.
Moving to Taiwan, Tron Future is planning monthly production of 100 T.Radar Pro folding-wing, phased-array radars this year. Weighing just 33lb (15kg), the radar was developed to create layered air defence to protect Taiwan from Chinese airborne threats.
The radar is already used by Taiwan’s military, especially over offshore islands, and it is part of Tron Future’s wider C-UAS system that even includes the reusable T.Interceptor hard-kill UAV that can carry either explosive or non-destructive warheads. This Taiwanese system can defend areas of over 3 miles (5km) in diameter.
Over in Japan, Kawasaki Heavy Industries exhibited a laser-armed C-UAS system at DSEI Japan in March. Developed using company funds but at the behest of the Acquisition, Technology & Logistics Agency (ATLA), the mobile system boasts a high-energy laser, gimbal and 2kW power source fitted onto a Kawasaki all-terrain vehicle (ATV). ATLA has tested it against drones, but one day it could potentially intercept missiles too.
As well as vehicle carriage, Kawasaki’s system could eventually be fitted to Japanese Aegis destroyers. Seaborne C-UAV applications are important for navies defending vessels against UAVs, and the US Navy actually placed a Northrop Grumman 150kW laser system demonstrator aboard USS Portland to test the concept.
The first known kill by a US directed-energy weapon was a Light Marine Air Defense Integrated System (LMADIS) from Ascent Vision Technologies, mounted on a USMC Polaris ATV aboard USS Boxer, which downed an Iranian drone in the Strait of Hormuz in 2019.
Vornik of DroneShield concluded that it is human nature to be reactive. However, “Ukraine really showed people that the next war will be fought using drones, so drones and anti-drone equipment are a staple of future warfare. And the next realisation was, hang on, we don’t have any counter-drone equipment!” Some countries like the USA have a small amount, but no military has anywhere near enough, “So all of them are playing catch up now, trying to get all that procured.”
Vornik therefore predicted: “Demand will keep rapidly rising. We’ll see drone technology continuing to improve, so you see drones flying, rolling on the ground, on the surface of the water, drones underwater. We’ll really see miniaturisation as a thing, so generally drones will get smaller, and swarming will become a bigger and bigger capability.”
by Gordon Arthur