Here We Go Again: Another Drone Intrusion at the White House

By Zain Naboulsi and Phil Wheat
Last week, another drone was discovered flying in restricted air space around the White House. The Secret Service found the pilot simply because they happened to see him. In other words, there is no indication that the Secret Service would have found the pilot if he had not been in plain view.

This person didn’t have bad intentions, but one day someone will.
Despite popular belief, it doesn’t cost millions of dollars to track these drones. In fact, our Drone Detector™ would have easily found the Parrott Bebop that was used, and our solution retails for around $10,000. What continues to amaze us is that while our company is in negotiations to protect the Japanese Prime Minister, our own Secret Service hasn’t reached out to seek a solution for protecting our President! View this piece as not just opinion but an exhortation for some agency (ANY agency) to hold a competition amongst the various drone-detection companies and see which one could protect the White House most efficaciously. To that end, it seems a little drone-detection education is in order:

Audio Detection

Audio detection does NOT work in urban environments—period. Most microphones only listen well at 25 to 50 feet therefore, because of the ambient noise in the area, any audio detection method would be rendered useless at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. It is also too simple for an operator to change the sound signature of a drone by buying different propellers or making other modifications. It doesn’t take much to defeat the many weaknesses of audio detection.

Video Detection

Video detection is a useful tool, but with some limitations. Cameras can see out to about 350 feet but have a very difficult time distinguishing birds from drones. Basically, anything flying in the air is a “drone” as far as a camera is concerned. Even by utilizing computer algorithms that look at flight patterns, the prevailing thought is that a bird will fly a more random pattern than a drone would. Unfortunately, as we have discovered, this notion fails in a place where birds glide. An excellent example of this is seagulls. They will ride wind currents and stay at a steady level, and this fools video systems.

Thermal Detection

Thermal detection has an effective range of about 350 feet for recreational drones. Much like audio detection, thermal detection would have had little success detecting the two drone incidents at the White House because the intruding drones, like most recreational drones, don’t produce a lot of heat. They are mostly plastic with electric motors. Thermal detection would pick up a bird more readily than it would pick up a drone in most cases.
However, thermal detection would have been perfect for spotting the human-flown gyrocopter that crash landed on the White House lawn recently. That vehicle was gas-powered and produced plenty of heat relative to the environment, so thermal detection could detect those vehicles that would typically need gas-powered engines to carry larger payloads.

Radar Detection

Radar is the traditional mechanism for detecting flying vehicles. We know that radar is already deployed at the White House but it did not detect either drone. Much like thermal, radar has a hard time picking up these small, plastic, electric-powered drones because that is not what they were created to do. Radar used to detect traditional aircraft can be modified to detect small drones but it will also detect birds and if a drone alert is issued every time a bird flies too close to the White House, security personnel will turn off the cameras in frustration.

Radio Frequency (RF) Detection

The most effective way to detect drones is with radio frequency (RF) technology, and Drone Detector™ is the only system utilizing it fully. It has a long range, about 1400 feet, and is difficult to circumvent. Only a truly skilled person could create a drone that would get past radio frequency detection. Certainly the two drones that invaded the White House, a DJI Phantom and a Parrot Bebop, would have been instantly caught by Drone Labs’ system.
Unlike other methods, RF detection can do much more than just identify that a drone is nearby. Within this the realm of RF we can glean the following:
• GPS coordinates of the drone
• Altitude of the drone
• GPS coordinates of the pilot
• Unique identifier of the drone

Below is a screenshot from our detection unit that shows some of the information we can gather. In this example the drone and the pilot are in the same location so the GPS coordinates are the same:
Drone Detector Sample Results

We can gather enough additional data to not only find the drone but to find its operator, and with the unique identifier we can definitively prove that a particular incursion was done using a specific drone. In other words, we can provide enough evidence for criminal prosecution.

The Protection Layers

Because we use several layers of detection (audio, RF, and—soon—video and thermal) instead of relying on a single technique, we can allow for known and unknown drone types. Our plan is simple, quickly identify known drone types and raise an alarm or examine the data for unknown drone types to determine if it is actually a drone or something else. Below is a visual representation of how we could provide minimal protection for the White House if and when the Secret Service asks:
White House Minimum Protection

What Now?

All this discussion is wasted if action isn’t taken. As noted earlier, want the Secret Service (or some relevant agency) to simply hold a competition between the various drone detection vendors and see what capabilities are available. I can’t imagine why they are not doing this already because it’s quite obvious that they have no solution in place today.

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