End the Lie

New ‘DroneShield’ project seeks to crowdfund a cheap way to detect surveillance drones

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By End the Lie

(Image credit: droneshield.org)

(Image credit: droneshield.org)

The latest bit of anti-drone technology comes in the form of a crowdfunded project attempting to build a cheap device that will detect surveillance drones and alert users via text message or email.

This seems to be part of a much larger backlash against increasingly widespread domestic drone use. Cities including Charlottesville, Virginia and a tiny town in Minnesota have passed anti-drone ordinances and other municipalities are considering similar moves.

Similarly, the mayor of Seattle, Washington forced the police department to drop their drone program and around 30 state legislatures  are in the process of either passing or considering legislation restricting domestic drones.

At the federal level, there are indications that anti-drone action is possible which is more important than ever given “the massive rise of drone use in the United States by countless entities both public (ranging from US Marshals to local law enforcement to the National Guard to the Department of Homeland Security to the military and more) and private (from potential use by media outlets to colleges and universities to commercial operators of all kinds),” as I pointed out in the past.

This latest project, dubbed “DroneShield” appears to be an attempt to capitalize on this widespread anti-drone sentiment by creating a relatively inexpensive device to help protect against drone surveillance.

However, DroneShield currently has many weaknesses, as you will see in a moment.

The device does have some quite positive aspects, not least of which is the fact that the founders of the project hope to get enough interest to eventually allow devices to be sold for around $20.

The device is around the size of a pager, built using the cheap Raspberry Pi computer and a small microphone.

The microphone picks up the sound of a drone before a human ear can, then processes the sound and compares it to an internal database of drone signatures before sending out an alert to the user.

As Popular Science points out, some of the anti-drone measures currently being explored are either massive in scale like anti-drone cities or look quite out of the ordinary like anti-drone clothing, but DroneShield “looks to be no more unusual than having a cell phone battery pack.”

The major problem with DroneShield – and one that can hopefully be improved or eliminated over time – is that it is significantly restricted in what it can detect.

The types of drones used by the military and certain government agencies that fly at high altitudes will likely be near impossible to detect with this device due to the distances involved.

The device is apparently aimed mostly at detecting the signature of commercial drones, thus leaving out the large number of military drones currently used by agencies like Customs and Border Protection.

If the device isn’t improved in the future to enable detection of the larger, more sophisticated drones it would essentially be unable to detect the most worrisome uses of drones.

Unfortunately, the main aim seems to be the cheaper, commercial drones for the moment with the project’s Indiegogo posting stating, “The goal is to help preserve your privacy from low-cost remote-control air vehicles with video cameras.”

“The system will have a maximum detection range that’s a function of the signature, background noise, and how loud the drone is. Because of this, we expect the system to have difficulty detecting high-altitude drones,” the developers add.

That means that the many large drones operated by the military and other government agencies will not be detected by this device, but it could cover some of the smaller drones used by police departments and commercial operators.

One can hope that if it is a success, similar technology can be applied to the detection of high-altitude drones once the equipment and software improves. However, the equipment involved would likely be significantly larger and more expensive.

Furthermore, the device relies on a database to match the sound signature of a drone in order to alert the user.

If the drone’s engine makes a sound not already in the database, the device can’t detect it. That means that new drones or modified drones will go undetected until the database is updated with the new signatures.

The individuals behind the project “are open to users submitting new sound signatures so the database can be more complete,” according to Popular Science, but a relatively large and sophisticated user base would likely be required to keep it completely up to date.

Perhaps even more problematic for a sound-based detection device is the fact that drones are becoming increasingly quiet with programs aimed at creating completely silent drones.

The developers, who have “over 20 years of combined experience working on science and engineering projects including machine learning and acoustic signal processing,” recognize this.

Their Indiegogo posting openly states that DroneShield won’t be able to pick up the signatures of the smallest drones in development like the insect-sized killer drones being developed by the Air Force.

“Background noise will reduce detection distance or increase false alarms,” the developers state.

Problems aside, the amount of time and energy being put into studying and developing measures to prevent drone surveillance is quite encouraging.

Considering this movement along with the increased push against drones in the legislative realm, one can imagine that the future of domestic drones may be significantly hampered.

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One Response to New ‘DroneShield’ project seeks to crowdfund a cheap way to detect surveillance drones

  1. Margaret Bartley May 2, 2013 at 10:05 AM

    Almost all these internet stories about Seattle banning drones are wrong. The police can still use drones whenever they want, it’s like getting a warrant. They just have to fill out paperwork.

    This regulation is a way to keep civilians from being able to use them to monitor the police.

    The ACLU is supporting that in the Washington State Legislature.

    The purpose of regulating these in the state legislatures is to prevent cities and local jurisdictions from pre-empting the states and passing laws that outright ban them, not just limit their use to police and security agencies.


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