The Cable

DARPA Wants Mobile Technologies to Combat Small Drones

The U.S. military needs better tech to fight store-bought drones.

A commercially available drone similar to ones used against U.S. forces (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images).
A commercially available drone similar to ones used against U.S. forces (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images).

How do you defend against an enemy who can buy a drone off Amazon?

U.S. military convoys in dangerous territory risk attack from small drones readily available for purchase, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) wants to be able to deploy a mobile system to combat them in about three to four years.

The agency is looking for sensor systems compact enough to be put on military ground vehicles and 25-foot U.S. Coast Guard boats and capable of detecting multiple small unmanned air systems.

Those sensor systems, coupled with technologies that could disable or destroy multiple small self-guided drones, were emphasized in DARPA’s September request for proposals. Self-guided drones need neither radio nor a GPS receiver to operate, the request said.

Both the sensors and the neutralization devices should be able to respond at a distance from the drones of one kilometer or more, DARPA said.

The Defense Department’s interest in this type of technology has been sparked by the proliferation of cheap, easy-to-obtain drones. The Islamic State, for example, has used small drones to target U.S. special operations forces in Syria.

The “relatively mature scalable, modular, and affordable” components DARPA wants would add to or complement already developing systems for the agency’s mobile force protection program, which is seeking to counter small drones.

DARPA chose Dynetics, Saab Defense & Security USA, and SRC for the first phase of the program, after soliciting proposals in 2016 for systems that would help “detect, identify, track, and neutralize” small drones.

Existing counter-drone technologies include overriding flight controls, shooting nets at them, or, in the case of Dutch police, training eagles to take them down. Neither Dynetics nor SRC detailed the technologies they were developing to Foreign Policy.

Dynetics did not submit a proposal in response to DARPA’s September request, according to Kristina Hendrix, the company’s corporate communications manager.

DARPA and Saab representatives were not immediately available to discuss the program.

“DARPA is not looking for end-to-end systems, but rather innovative technology components that can be integrated with” concepts already fielded under the agency’s mobile force protection program, according to its September request.

The agency’s goal is to have a “full-capability demonstration on a moving vehicle or vessel” by the end of the third phase of the program, it said in an August release. The hope would be to “progressively improve” the systems after showing “initial functionality” at the end of the first phase, the release stated.

Proposals were due Monday.

All three military services, the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate, and the Coast Guard are cooperating with DARPA on the program.

The low cost and portability of some drones have helped to create a “fast-evolving array of dangers” for convoys on land and sea, according to the August release.

Agile consumer drones can sell for less than $500 online.

Photo credit: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

John Kester is a Washington, D.C.-based reporter.

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