Watchers of the 2020 Olympics opening ceremony in July were treated to an astonishing show in the sky right above Olympic Stadium. It began as thousands of lights took the three-dimensional shape of the Tokyo 2020 emblem. While viewers watched and wondered how this effect was achieved, the lights slowly began to morph into a rotating planet Earth, with white lights representing land masses and blue lights for waters. Taking a bow for this stunning performance were 1,824 drones.
In addition to their starring role in the Olympics, drones are also playing an increasingly important role in the security industry. They can be used for good — to perform security checks and other industrial tasks — or they can be used for nefarious purposes, in which case a security integrator can deploy an airspace security system that detects and alerts to the presence of unwanted drones, perhaps even taking over and landing them. Together with their autonomous cousin, the security robot, these solutions fall under a broader umbrella of products that deal with newer threats and risks not currently addressed by traditional security products.
Although they are only just getting their start in the security industry, security robots, surveillance drones and airspace security (counter-drone or drone defense) solutions hold significant opportunity for the right security integrators. Today in the security industry the products are sold mostly by the top integrators, primarily because robots, drones and counter-drone systems were used by the military and other government agencies early on. However, current factors are causing new sales opportunities to emerge in commercial markets, making the business more accessible to all types and sizes of security companies.
Most experts say the technology behind many of these systems is not difficult for integrators to grasp, but what makes the learning curve steep is understanding which applications are best suited for each of these products and implementing them effectively. Every solution has myriad considerations that are vastly different from those of an access control or video surveillance system, for example.
Opportunities for Integrators
Many security integrators take their cues from PSA Security, a consortium of progressive security and audio-visual systems integrators, which represents over $4.5 billion annually in project sales. In a pioneering announcement earlier this year, PSA declared that it had added Dedrone to its Managed Security Service Provider (MSSP) Program. “Dedrone protects organizations from malicious and unauthorized drones by securing the air space using sensors and software technology,” the press release states.
PSA’s Tim Brooks and Dedrone’s Amit Samani team up in this video to discuss the importance of airspace security in light of the increasing threat of UAVs and drones, and provide an overview of Dedrone's capabilities available to PSA integrators.
This was a significant announcement for the industry, because airspace security is aligned with perimeter security, says Tim Brooks, PSA’s vice president of sales. Hardening the perimeter beyond the physical structure of a building by adding detection or surveillance to a fence, for example, is definitely a job for electronic security integration companies. But drones are a whole new ball game, Brooks adds, because in the past an intruder would have to physically climb over the fence or crash the gate to breach the perimeter.
“But a $200 drone can fly right over that fence and right above the cameras,” Brooks says. “And most cameras don’t look above the horizon. A drone flies fairly silently right into the perimeter. They can land on the roof and drop a little Raspberry Pi surveillance [device] that’s going to hop on the Wi-Fi network and intercept printer traffic. If it’s a correctional facility, it can drop contraband or weapons. If it’s corporate espionage, they can watch activities in a testing yard that’s outside.”
Stadium and arena protection is one of the sector use cases for D-Fend Solutions’ EnforceAir system, which can create an alert zone set on the outer perimeter of the stadium, with the option for multiple protection zones blanketing the venue and surrounding areas. EnforceAir protects players, fans and venue staff while delivering continuity to avoid game or event disruption.
In 2017, Allied Universal Technology Services, headquartered in Santa Ana, Calif. and ranked No. 5 on SDM’s Top Systems Integrators Report, recognized the importance that unmanned systems and their technology to detect, control and direct activity would have on security programs, states Sherman Brawner, general manager of the Monitoring & Response Center at Allied Universal. “Allied Universal recognized it was time to become a part of the rising tide of unmanned systems and adopt practices allowing our teams to become well-informed and assist in the best methods, timing and implementation of these devices and their software. Even more importantly, we needed to answer questions from customers and prospects about the use of unmanned systems and help separate fact from fiction and practical application in concert with economic feasibility."
Having a robot or a drone was very appealing to many organizations, Brawner says, because they thought it would give them a progressive and high-tech profile that would be desirable to employees, investors and customers in their industry segment, and help them gain a competitive advantage. “As a result, interest was very high and questions about costs and timing to deploy created a very high number of requests,” he says. Allied Universal found that these requests came from many different commercial market segments beyond the military and government, which had been the traditional customers for autonomous systems.
New Sales Opportunities in Commercial Markets
What comes to mind first when thinking of airspace security, naturally, is airports. Though many airports have drone detection systems in place, not all do. In fact, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced in August 2020 that it planned to test at least 10 technologies or systems that could detect and mitigate potential safety risks posed by unmanned aircraft. The effort will be part of the agency’s Airport Unmanned Aircraft Systems Detection and Mitigation Research Program. One report states the testing could last up to 24 months.
Drone detection is also being considered in the corrections industry to prevent contraband, sporting venues to prevent competitive spying or extremist activity, and even corporations to secure their intellectual property from theft. “Just like cybersecurity is required to protect the intellectual property that resides on the computers in your building, the same thing is true with intellectual property that may be able to be sniffed,” Brooks explains. “Instead of somebody hacking in remotely, they can bring a drone in with a hacking device that would put itself right in the local network, bypassing the internet, and then steal proprietary information.”
Other than the airspace security solution, PSA does not represent any security robot or surveillance drone products at this time, because, Brooks says, their members aren’t asking for them. While the idea of using a drone for surveillance is perfect in incident management and other live events, Brooks believes some integrators look at drones as a consumer-type product, “readily available, inexpensive and with no margin,” and integrators typically focus on installed and integrated products.
However, some of the largest security integrators currently have all three products — drone surveillance, airspace security and security robots — in their solutions portfolios.
Allied Universal has deployed unmanned autonomous systems for clients in manufacturing, logistics, shipping, commercial real estate, airport, large retail and residential communities, Brawner says. The applications are extensive and include parking lot security, after-hours patrols and detection of persons or vehicles in secured locations. “Response to reported events by employees, detection alerts from electronic security systems such as thermal cameras, capture and reporting of black-listed license plates, and even visitor entry management are all aspects of these types of deployments,” he says.
Convergint, based in Schaumburg, Ill., SDM’s No. 1 Top Systems Integrator, also has been specifying drones, drone detection and security robots for several years. The company’s work in this area was led by its federal teams, since governments adopted the solutions much earlier than commercial markets. Convergint has a substantial body of work in federal agencies and departments. However, over the last couple of years, Convergint also has seen the interest in these technologies bleed over into the commercial market in segments such as data centers, energy, oil and gas and large manufacturing.
“Drones are really a game changer, both for good guys and bad guys,” says Scott Frigaard, business development manager for data fusion on Convergint’s Digital Transformation Team. “For good guys, [there’s] the ability to do guard force reduction, the ability to take people out of harm’s way, the ability to limit liability. And then for bad guys, just the potential for threat vectors is astounding. The ability to put a rogue wireless access point on a drone, fly the drone onto a building roof and then tap into the building’s network — I think I saw a month or so ago that someone had used a drone to unlock a Tesla by just getting the drone near the Tesla. … There are just so many needs that arise from these technologies, and the technologies themselves are adapting so quickly that it’s impressive. Our customers have really forced the adoption by Convergint into these solutions.”
Lowered product cost is forcing serious inspection of these solutions due to the pandemic-induced lockdowns and the result of having fewer people staffing large plants, he adds. “Guard force reduction is a huge initiative among just about every commercial entity, especially over the last year as they’ve had fewer folks in their facilities and they’re trying to figure out how they are going to staff.”
Some of the first customer deployments for Convergint were for border protection and correctional facilities. “We are seeing at the federal, state and local levels, a significant increase in contraband deliveries flown by drones,” Frigaard says. Correctional facilities gain an advantage by being able to detect a drone as soon as it is powered up outside of the facility, and they can interdict the pilot rather than wait for the contraband — whether it’s a weapon, a cell phone, money or drugs — to be dropped into the prison yard, he says.
Since then, the integrator has deployed drone detection systems for chemical manufacturers, energy companies and agricultural organizations to prevent terrorist activity or even just spot hobbyists who are out exploring with their drones. Frigaard says there is a potential for pilots to crash the drone and damage an organization’s outdoor equipment or, worse, put an explosive device on the drone and set fire to a facility.
Convergint also is deploying drones for pipeline inspections and facility inspections. Instead of sending people to drive hundreds of miles to do visual inspections, possibly in inclement weather, the drones perform automated inspections, sometimes with thermal cameras for detecting temperature anomalies. The company also has data center clients that are using wheeled robots as perimeter patrols and several large manufacturing customers for aerial drone patrols, as they look at reducing overall security costs.
About the Learning Curve
Security integrators’ reception of PSA Security’s airspace security solution has been very positive, Brooks notes. He says integrators should have an easy time with the technology because with the base level of the Dedrone Solution they literally put up a single detection device on a tripod on the roof of the building, plug it into their client’s network, and it collects data of the airspace activity and provides a report after 30 days. More advanced levels are offered and can be deployed, depending on the results of the report. “But it’s no more difficult than installing a camera outside,” he relates.
The most difficult part of selling airspace security is for integrators to wrap their heads around the idea, because it’s new, Brooks says. “This is not a higher megapixel camera; this is not a different type of card reader technology. This is something completely different than what they’ve been doing and it takes some getting used to.”
The technology itself varies from one manufacturer to another and each prospective deployment is custom, Brawner describes. “Add this to the hype and misconceptions from both the general public and the industry itself and the challenges to design an applicable deployment and meet expectations are not insignificant,” he says.
Frigaard at Convergint says these technologies are far different than those sold over the last 20 years in physical security. “The learning curve on drones is steep. You’ve got FAA regulations, which dictates how, where and when it can be flown. The training is a significant component of a customer deployment.
“You’ve got total cost of ownership. We’re looking at some of these applications to reduce guard force, but it comes with other costs. For instance, it’s one thing to say that this drone or this robot can take the place of four workers in a given area, but it’s another thing to say, ‘If the drone detects something, who’s going to respond to that? Where is this person going to come from? How are they going to be dispatched?’” he asks.
Frigaard cautions that there are lessons to be learned from perception. A security integrator can install impressive technologies, but if the perception of the employees, guests or customers is not positive, then that wasn’t a beneficial use case of that technology, he claims.
“There really are a number of things that have to be evaluated nowadays that just weren’t there in the past. In the past, you would install a video surveillance system and just put a sign up that read, ‘Cameras in Use.’ Now there are government agencies that have to be involved. There’s long-term training. We’re really moving away from just security operators to more analysts in a lot of these instances,” Frigaard says. “They’re threat hunters really, where they are trying to aggregate more and more data sets, they’re trying to detect patterns and trends so that they can take very, very minor security incidents and prevent that from escalating into bigger issues.”
The technology is the easiest part of a drone or robot solution for an integrator to navigate, Frigaard continues. Installing and configuring these solutions is “fairly straightforward. The learning curve is in the customer use cases: being able to understand the client’s operations and their goals so that we can translate that product’s capabilities into an actual benefit to them.”
For example, integrators need to help their clients consider, “’What are you going to do when you have an alert? How is your security force going to respond to this? How are you going to integrate with first responders? How does this technology fit into your security operations center?’ I’d say that has been the biggest component to learning — understanding how these are going to integrate into the rest of the security operation,” Frigaard says.
Advice for Security Integrators
Brawner at Allied Universal concurs. “You have to carefully assess how to apply this technology to deliver real world solutions. It’s easy to get enamored with the newest and shiniest technology, but that rapturous ideation is different than actual usage,” he says.
“While there will always be a need for personnel to be involved in strategic decision making, situational analysis and security response, machines excel at monotonous, computationally heavy and sometimes hazardous or difficult-to-reach work. Modern robots and drones help bridge the gap between artificial intelligence and human response,” Brawner says.
Companies can’t overlook developing a successful business model, as well. Brawner says one of the first challenges at Allied Universal was determining what type of pricing and service model would work best for its clients. It was clear that selling a robot outright would not be a pathway to success in most instances, he says. “So, what was developed was a system similar to cable TV where you buy a subscription that comes with a cable box. The robot is the delivery device for the service that we sell. The customer doesn’t have to worry about delivery and set up, repairs, routine preventative maintenance, licensing to the user interface, etc. It’s a package price, and the consumer pays one predictable monthly fee,” he describes.
It is important for security integrators to determine how surveillance drones, airspace security solutions and security robots can be used to solve problems, while not overlapping with other technologies that are already doing the job. To gain the knowledge needed for this new realm in security, they should research the space and partner with experts, particularly those knowledgeable about regulations. An extensive level of internal support is needed to be successful in the autonomous drone and robot space, starting with your company’s executive leadership.