OCEANSIDE, CA. – Drones have been used for a lot more than making videos and delivering pizzas.
They have dropped drugs into prison yards, scouted out illegal border crossings and grounded lifesaving efforts by accidentally wandering into the flight paths of firefighting aircraft. Therefore, they have become a new challenge faced by law enforcement.
While new opportunities exist in the deployment of drones, they also hinder police during critical incidents. As a result, police agencies are looking for a way to bring them back to earth.
A new electronic device called a “drone killer” could be the answer. Moreover, at least two Southern California agencies have deployed the new technology.
The Oceanside Police Department, which is north of San Diego, recently acquired a “drone killer.” It is an electronic device that can disable a drone in the sky and force it back to the ground, reported the Los Angeles Times.
Furthermore, other law enforcement agencies are considering the technology as a way to rein in unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs. Will they soon be deployed elsewhere?
“The purpose is primarily for emergency situations,” Oceanside police Lt. Aaron Doyle said last week. “It won’t be used when someone complains about a neighbor flying a drone. It’s pretty much for a life-or-death situation, to save lives.”
The need arose in December during northern San Diego County’s Lilac fire. The blaze destroyed more than 150 structures and forced thousands of residents to flee their homes. During the wildfire, someone sent up a drone that forced aerial firefighting operations to cease for more than an hour to avoid a possible collision.
“Shutting down the operations for an hour can be critical to saving lives,” Doyle said. “We started looking for options in case it happened again.”
The search led officers to IXI Technology in Yorba Linda, California, a company that has been supplying high-tech electronic equipment to the U.S. military for 35 years, and a new device it released in 2017.
Company executives agreed to donate one of the drone killers, worth about $30,000, and made a formal presentation to the Oceanside Police Department at a City Council meeting on March 28.
“We are the first law enforcement agency in San Diego County to have this device,” Police Chief Frank McCoy said at the meeting.
The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department may soon join Oceanside Police Department. They have also looked at anti-drone technology and acknowledged a need for the devices, sheriff’s Lt. Karen Stubkjaer said in an email to the Times.
“We currently are not using this type of equipment, but have not ruled it out for future use,” she said. “Terrorist organizations are utilizing drones as well as organized narcotic groups. This type of technology may be important in the future to safeguard the county jails, courthouses and communities.”
The device, which looks like a gun, can be aimed like a rifle or a shotgun at a drone in the air. The 30-degree field of its beam and its range of almost half a mile make the target hard to miss, according to reports.
“In short, it breaks the command and control between the drone and the operator,” said Andy Morabe of IXI Technology.
The airborne drone, depending on how it is programmed, will do one of three things. It will either return to its “home,” which is the place it was launched, hover in place or go straight to the ground and land.
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The company’s anti-drone device was first used by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to protect the 2017 Rose Parade, Morabe said. Since then, it has been used at a number of large public events around Los Angeles.
According to Marabe, the device can stop almost all of the hundreds of models of remotely controlled aircraft that are available.
When a new drone is encountered that cannot be defeated, the anti-drone software will be rewritten to include the new model and an update will be issued within days, he said.
Hence, operators can download the update from the Internet, just like any new or updated app for a phone or computer.
With advancing technology and lower prices, there has been a proliferation of drones in recent years. The fleet of UAVs range from small ones with cameras sold online and in department stores, to large ones used by the military to carry weapons.
Yet drones have been used by criminals to drop contraband into prison yards, and by drug cartels to monitor the U.S.-Mexico border, Morabe said.
As a result, prison executives, U.S. Border Patrol, and the military are all interested in the anti-drone technology, he said.
Marines at nearby Camp Pendleton trained with the device just last month, according to a story by the Reuters news service.
Law enforcement agencies across the United States are rapidly adopting the use of drones.
The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department became the first law enforcement agency in the county to use drones for surveillance in 2016. The eyes in the sky have assisted in dozens of homicide investigations, SWAT incidents and search-and-rescue missions.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deployed drones in January of 2017. At the time, Sheriff Jim McDonnell said they plan to take full advantage of leading technology to gain a two-fold benefit: Obtain a more informative vantage point, and increase safety for sworn personnel and civilians during certain tactical response operations.
The Chula Vista Police Department bought its first two drones this year, and police in Carlsbad and Escondido have said they are interested.
The Oceanside Police Department acquired its first drone a few months ago, Doyle said.
“It’s a great tool to use to find people who are missing,” he said, whether it’s an Alzheimer’s patient who just walked away from home, or a criminal fleeing a crime. The drone has a heat-sensitive infrared camera to help locate people at night.
“Right now, we can only fly it during the day,” he said. “The program is still in its infancy.”
Officers are working to become certified by the Federal Aviation Administration and to establish local policies for when drones and the anti-drone device can or should be used.
Oceanside’s location next to Camp Pendleton, where training frequently causes brush fires, increases the need for a way to control drones during emergencies, Doyle said.
The Oceanside City Council gave its initial approval to a drone ordinance Nov. 1 and is still awaiting a final version. That ordinance, when finished later this year, is expected to prohibit drones over occupied schools and some other public places and may require a permit to operate drones in some situations.
Police often hear complaints about drones invading people’s privacy and in some cases creating a safety hazard. Last year, a drone hit an unsuspecting beachgoer, causing a minor injury, near the Oceanside pier.
You can read the IXI Drone Killer data sheet here.