MITRE challenge reveals promising counter UAV tech

By Luke Geiver | September 15, 2016

After 150 unmanned aircraft vehicle (UAV) flights were performed near a Quantico, Virginia-testing facility, a team of researchers was able to crown two winners for a competition designed to showcase counter-UAV capabilities. Michael Balazs, senior multidisciplinary systems engineer, and Jonathan Rotner, lead sensor systems engineer, both with MITRE—a not-for-profit government organization that performs research and development—helped to lead an 8 team challenge. The two-week event featured companies, organizations and teams from around the world, each featuring different technologies and techniques designed to mitigate unwanted or unlawful UAV flights in or around a certain zone deemed a no-fly zone area. 

According to Rotner, the idea for the challenge first launched two years ago. But, only last year, when drones were making headlines for landing on the White House lawn or in front of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, did the desire to host a challenge gain support. “Spotting drones or stopping them from being where they aren’t supposed to be is becoming a national issue,” Rotner said. “The world is waking up to thinking about how to counter UAVs.” 

For the MITRE challenge, Balazs and Rotner designed an environment that mimicked drone-intrusion based headlines, ranging from a scenario involved an inexperience operator flying without knowing of no-fly zones to an experienced operator equipped with a technical background and ill intentions. “Tactically and technically, it gave a range of what our counter UAV systems could stop and what they were truly prepared for,” Rotner said. According to Rotner, there was an array of tactics, technologies or algorithms used in the competition and there is no “silver bullet.” 

But, according to Balazs, the competition helped to increase the technical know-how of every team. In the current discussion on counter UAVs, there is a need to understand the technical abilities, along with the legalities and rules of engagement, he added. 

“All of the companies have different niche markets they are looking at,” Balazs said. The winning teams won for their respective ability to provide the best detection and determination system, best end-to-end system or the best interdiction system. 

DroneRANGER, designed and built by Alexandria, Virginia-based Van Cleave and Associates, won the best end-to-end system. The award netted the company $80,000. The system relies on a 360-degree scanning radar, positioning system for visual and thermal imaging and radio frequency jammers. After the radar detects a drone, the RF jammers block radio frequencies to neutralize their path. 

SkyWall 100, a shoulder-mounted net-dispersing interdiction system won $20,000 for the Riding Mill, England-based team at Open Works Engineering. The SkyWall 100 system, according to MITRE, consists of a compressed air powered launcher and an intelligent projectile. Immediately after the net is deployed, a parachute is released that controls the descent of the captured drone. 

Although none of the technologies will act as an all-encompassing counter UAV system, Balazs said he is excited for the results of the challenge and to see the participants progress. 

“The next step is to really see how these companies will connect and where they will be in a year,” he said.