In 2020, COVID shutdowns accelerated use cases for drones, and with more drones in the skies comes more exposed vulnerabilities. The airspace security market, two years ago, was in its infancy. Today, airspace security datasets show more than a 100 percent increase in unauthorized drone activity since the start of the COVID-19 shutdowns beginning in March.
This past year, we have observed new drones come to market, and this technology is becoming more readily available on the commercial market and more attractive to buy. They are less expensive, able to fly longer and with greater payloads. The security implications of unauthorized drones, from espionage, terrorism and contraband delivery, will only persist and escalate in the year to come.
As security leaders consider their airspace security needs for 2021, and observe this growing threat, they should keep top of mind these 11 trends that will take front and center in the coming months.
1. Drone usage will continue to rise exponentially, pushed by the impacts of COVID-19. Drones are coming to work in increasing numbers. Facility security leaders are looking to use drones to prevent more workers from coming onsite — putting drones to work for inspection, delivery and surveillance. The number of drones coming to work will only increase, and will become a permanent fixture for organizations moving forward.
2. Increase in disrupted events at airports, stadiums and other open-air facilities. Drone disruptions aren’t new, but more people are realizing how easy it is to cause damage and harm to a facility, and how impactful these drone events are to a business’ reputation. Drones may appear as a part of a broader exploitation plan — check out the site before entering it to identify vulnerabilities. As more open-air facilities remain closed due to COVID shutdowns, onlookers will want to take the view into their own hands, such as the drone pilots who shut down Major League Baseball games in 2020.
3. Drone blackmail will be added as a new security threat. Paparazzi chased down celebrities with drones in 2020, and angry neighbors around the world worked with local law enforcement to build frameworks to protect their privacy from drone onlookers. Airspace security protects organizations from drone threats, and an emerging threat in 2021 will be drone-based blackmail. Bad actors are beginning to understand the costs associated with downtime at a critical infrastructure site — airlines who canceled flights during the Gatwick shutdown reported nearly $64.5 million in losses when a wayward drone halted airport operations for two days in 2018.
4. Decrease in the overreliance of DJI / Aeroscope as a platform. DJI drones remain the consumer market leader for drone technology and have been joined by legions of drone manufacturers vying to take the number one spot. Combined with market dilution, and increased efforts by the U.S. government to limit or prohibit Chinese-made drones from being used by federal agencies and the military, 2021 will highlight an increase in the diversity of the types of commercial and consumer drones used, and effect the technology required to detect drones. Airspace security technology must adapt to detect a variety of drones, and not be limited to a single manufacturer.
5. Local governments will pioneer drone integration and response infrastructure. Cities will begin to think about how to monetize their airspace and integrate drone detection at the local level. In the U.S., the FAA established seven regional UAS testing sites dedicated to researching and testing UAS operations such as long-range drone delivery, detect and avoid technology, Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) operations, counter-drone tech and UAS Traffic Management (UTM), among other drone programs. Especially as cities begin to understand their airspace activity, they will be the pioneers in developing new programs to respond to local drone threats and explore more opportunities to integrate drones as a part of their local infrastructure.
6. More government cUAS technology requirements and testing standards will be formalized and executed. Central governments have created departments dedicated to the study and integration of drones in their national infrastructure, and in 2021, more governments will take their years of counterdrone market research and formalize their needs and standards for purchasing and integrating counterdrone technology, and how it will be used for national security and anti-terrorism. Leading the charge is the U.K.’s Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure (CPNI), which was the first central government program that vigorously tested different cUAS platforms to identify leading technologies and accelerate mass procurement and adoption.
7. Counterdrone technology market consolidation. The airspace security market is narrowing down and consolidating between vendors. Counterdrone platforms that have open systems, and integrate multiple technologies, will be open for more opportunities than single-service or single-technology providers.
8. Drones are getting stronger, faster and flying together. As drone technology continues to advance, airspace security programs will not only need to increase the scope in types of consumer and commercial drones to detect, but also ensure that drone swarms can be detected as reliably as a single drone. Especially for defense organizations, the smaller threat could be a single drone, but terrorists, criminals and other bad actors will challenge drone detection systems by evading detection either through developing technology difficult to detect, or flying multiple drones in a single instance, such as what was observed at the Palo Verde nuclear power plant, or the mysterious drone swarm in Colorado which prompted months of speculation and investigation, but no answers.
9. Government programs for remote identification will advance, slowly, but surely. Remote identification programs are being developed in multiple countries, designed to facilitate the collection and storage of certain drone data such as identity, location and altitude. Aviation authorities understand the need to integrate an identification program for drone users, and have been slow to adopt standards. In 2021, the first remote identification programs will be launched, and more counterdrone technology programs will be sought to integrate into government systems to provide a complete view of both authorized and unauthorized drone activity.
10. Defeating drone threats will not look the same. When it comes to defeating drones, there are certain kinetic solutions which will hard kill the drone, and non-kinetic technologies which will disable or override the drone flight. Defeat systems are still evolving as legislation changes and more organizations become authorized to interdict drones. In 2021, there will be a greater need for more precision electronic warfare attacks that reduce collateral damage. As the drone market changes in 2021, defeat technologies will need to integrate into larger detection systems that can detect a variety of small drones, whether they are commercially available or homebrew. The threat may look different, but when it comes to defeating the drone, security providers will need to identify, classify and then deploy a countermeasure.
11. Advancing homeland security research and legislation. As the counterdrone market matures, more researchers and analysts are entering the conversation and providing analysis on the growth and predictions of mass adoption in the next 10-15 years. Laws on cUAS technology are evolving country by country, state by state, city by city. With more researchers, lobbyists and market watchers, 2021 will be the most active year in terms of research and legislation development.