Countering Drones with Animal-Inspired Robots, Acoustic Sensors, AI and More

Projects will use a range of technologies from British companies and academia

The UK Ministry of Defence’s innovation hub, the Defence and Security Accelerator (DASA), has awarded a total of £2m to 18 separate projects that aim to develop new capabilities to detect, disrupt and defeat the hostile and malicious use of drones. The contracts are the result of the Countering Drones competition launched earlier this year.

In the UK, drones have become more than a nuisance. While they are banned within 5km of any airport, malicious use of drones on the runway at Gatwick, one of London’s major airports, caused a major incident in 2018. Around a thousand flights were cancelled or diverted over three days in December 2018, affecting more than 140,000 passengers in the run up to Christmas.

The Countering Drones competition received more than 90 entries from a range of organisations that included micro businesses, small and medium-sized enterprises, large defence firms and academia (Image: Kaleb Kendall)

“The threat from UAS has evolved rapidly and we are seeing the use of hostile improvised UAS threats in overseas theatres of operation. There is a similar problem in the UK with the malicious or accidental use of drones becoming a security challenge at events, affecting critical infrastructure and public establishments; including prisons and major UK airports,” said David Lugton, competition technical lead, in a statement.

Technology consultancy Plextek won two contracts based on the company’s low size, weight and power (low SWaP) radio systems. The first project will develop a signal detection and jamming system that will disrupt hostile drones without affecting nearby non-malicious systems. The second will develop a miniature radar that can be fitted to drones to detect and track hostile drones.  

“Drones are increasingly being used to conduct hostile activities due to their relatively low cost, ease of deployment and lack of technologies to adequately counter them,” said Dr. Aled Catherall, Head of Technology at Plextek-DTS, in a statement. “The threat posed is advancing rapidly and drones are being used effectively against military targets and to disrupt critical national infrastructure. New technologies to counter the drone threat is therefore required and the two projects awarded to Plextek-DTS will help to provide a significant step towards achieving an effective counter-drone capability.”

The first phase of the project is to develop proof-of-concept systems, with the second phase beginning next year (Image: Ricardo Gomez Angel)

Among the other projects are methods for detecting 4G and 5G controlled drones, use of AI to identify drones, and low risk methods to disable drones.

One project from Oxford startup Animal Dynamics aims to use the attack strategies of peregrine falcons to develop a swarm of drones to detect and neutralise hostile drones. Another from Airspeed Electronics will detect hostile drones by combining acoustic sensor signals using AI. A team from University College London will develop signal processing and AI algorithms to distinguish drones from birds.

Phase 1 of the competition will demonstrate proof of concepts that can be further developed in Phase 2. This first phase will run until summer 2020.

The 18 projects funded to around £100,000 each are:

  • Airspeed Electronics Ltd – to develop an artificial intelligence detection system which uses acoustic sensors.
  • Animal Dynamics – to develop UAS swarm system to detect and neutralise Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAV) by employing peregrine falcon attack strategies.
  • Autonomous Devices Limited – to develop interception technology.
  • BAE Systems Applied Intelligence Ltd – to develop electromagnetic defeat of UAS.
  • BAE Systems Applied Intelligence Ltd – to develop passive radar for detection of UAVs.
  • Cubica Technology Ltd – to develop an automatic recognition and targeting system of UAVs from large distances.
  • MBDA UK Ltd – to demonstrate an integrated system to detect, track and intercept hostile drones.
  • Northrop Grumman – to develop UAS defeat using cyber and sensor vulnerabilities.
  • Northumbria University – to develop anti-swarm drone technology.
  • PA Consulting – to develop a detection system against cellular controlled UAS.
  • Plextek Services Limited – to develop detection and signal jamming capability for UAS.
  • Plextek Services Limited – to develop miniature Counter-UAS radar.
  • QinetiQ – to develop a drone tracking system in complex environments.
  • QinetiQ – to develop a ‘hard kill’ for disrupting the UAV’s on board electronics.
  • RiskAware Ltd – to develop an automated drone identification and target tracking system.
  • Thales UK – to develop a machine learning for Counter-UAS radar.
  • University College London – to develop signal processing and machine learning algorithms to identify drones in areas highly populated by birds.
  • An additional proposal, subject to contract.

Sally Ward-Foxton is a correspondent for and