Ohio company develops Drone Defender

Published: Monday, November 06, 2017 @ 5:30 PM

Dan Stamm
Dan Stamm

Small remote controlled aircraft, also known as drones, are taking to the skies of the Miami Valley with increasing frequency. Hobbyists, bridge inspectors and, yes, even TV stations are using them to get a bird's eye view of whatever is happening below. The Federal Aviation Administration estimates there are 700,000 of them now in use nationwide and that number is estimated to explode to about 7 million by 2020.

The expansion of drone use brings with it inherent safety threats, including security breaches at state prisons. Former corrections officer Jamie Fant of Trotwood, who worked in the system for 18 years, said it would not take too much for a person to fly a drone over the fence and into a prison yard carrying drugs or other contraband.

"It's a scary thought. They ( inmates and accomplices on the outside ) can find ways to breach security big time," Fant said.Already one state prison in Mansfield has had one such drone attack, which a small remote controlled helicopter flying into the prison yard carrying drugs. The drone was, however, spotted by corrections officers and confiscated before any inmates could get to it. Military and other high security federal installations could also be threatened by drone users who, rather than drop off drugs, would want to do surveillance for a future attack. 

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Those scenarios led to the invention of the "Drone Defender." It comes from the Columbus-based research and development firm Battelle, designed to be an effective way to counter drone flights. The mechanism looks like a shotgun with a few parts from a TV antenna but it does not blast anything more than radio waves. Co-inventor Dan Stamm of Battelle said the signals from the Drone Defender interfere with the control signals coming from the pilot.

"We specifically set out to sever that link between the pilot and the drone," said Stamm. "The drone then could be brought safely to the ground."

So far sales have been limited to the US Defense Department and the Department of Homeland Security. Response has been good, according to Stamm's co-inventor Alex Morrow, also of Battelle, based on feedback fro users. 

"Every time they pick it up and they shoot, they can see the effects on the aircraft and they know it works," Morrow said.

Experts at Sinclair Community College's Unmanned Aerial Systems Program say the anti-drone technology works so well, they expect some day it will be used to protect large venues where big groups of people gather like sports stadiums and outdoor concerts. Ryan Palm, Sinclair's UAS Program Coordinator, said much like the Drone Defender, the fixed systems will send a signal to the aircraft telling it to stay away if it is too close. 

"If you try to take off, it won't take off. If you try to fly in that area it will either land or turn around and stay out of that area," Palm said.

So what happens if someone accidentally flies his drone over your house, or worse yet, a nasty neighbor purposely hovers over your backyard? Privacy expert Lindsay Johnson, an attorney with Freund, Freeze and Arnold in Dayton, said your options are limited. 
"You can't shoot it down. You can't damage it," Johnson said. 

Under federal law a drone is afforded the same legal protections of any aircraft, even though it can be bought at most hobby shops and small enough to fit in a lunch box. Homeowners may be protected by law from invasions of privacy like voyeurism but drones are permitted to fly above their property. 
"A lot of people think we own the airspace above our yards and we really don't own that space," said Johnson.
She recommends that if a drone is bothering you on your property, try to talk with the pilot of the aircraft and ask that they not fly in the area. Johnson said a call to police might be in order only if the drone operator is damaging a structure, landing on your property or trying to shoot video in a voyeuristic way
While the potential for backyard battles over drones continues, the threat at prisons is under study. The Ohio Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has confirmed to the I-Team that they are studying systems that electronically detect any approaching drones.