Insider Surveillance reviews a new advance on the ELTA Drone Guard that not only jams but takes control of enemy drones.
With the sudden uptick in use of drones by ISIS, U.S. military officials recently took immediate action to find a remedy: a contract with the North American division of ELTA Systems, among the biggest and best-known military equipment and ISS solutions providers based in Israel. ISIS had taken a new direction with drones, outfitting their garage-made aerial attack vehicles with bombs aimed primarily at Iraqi troops engaged in the seige of Mosul.
While U.S. casualties from Islamic State drones was minimal to none, the impact on morale of homeland troops might prove devastating if left unaddressed. The U.S., of course, is no stranger to military drones, using them with effect against targeted enemies throughout the Middle East. Now ISIS was retaliating in kind. Payback, as they say, is a bitch.
But not for long. Twenty-one ELTA “Man Portable Aerial Defense System kits” are on order to the tune of US $15.6 million and expected to reach the front lines this summer. Just what are these devices? Speculation has run rampant, with some speculating the ELTA’s solution fits the usual definition of a “Man Portable” aerial weapon, meaning a missile. Fired like a rifle, such missiles are used to bring down enemy aircraft.
But the customer name on the purchase order points in a different direction. The buyer is the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center (LCC), in charge of communications and electronics. The LCC doesn’t buy missiles, they buy comms tools, including RF monitoring and jamming and spyware – and physical devices that enable them.
ELTA is already in the jamming business, and has a product that can interfere with and take down drones. Their product: the “Drone Guard,” already in use by other ELTA clients to detect, track and jam small drones. ELTA debuted the Drone Guard in October 25 at an aerospace and defense convention in Asia.
But the solution bought by the Air Force goes a step beyond the conventional Drone Guard. It not only jams an enemy drone, it takes control of the flying menace by hacking in.
U.S. troops will soon be using the portable device to single out ISIS-operated drones, take control away from the “pilot” and either crash or send the flying bombs homeward bound.
Inside the Drone Guard
The Drone Guard works in two fundamental ways. First, the device uses 3D radars and Electro-Optical (EO) sensors to detect and identify predesignated threats such as drones. The big challenge is in identifying a target as small and low-speed as a drone. ELTA resolves that issue with a large does of computer science: special algorithms that enable 3D radar to track small objects in motion. Next generation EO sensors add certainty to the ID process via precise visual identification. In field operation, Drone Guard gives the trooper the option of monitoring the sky in long (20 kilometer), medium (15 kilometer) or short (10 kilometer) range.
Then part II kicks in: a jamming system that disrupts radio signals that control the drone. ELTA’s “advanced jamming systems” can be set in automatic mode to hunt for enemy drones 24 X 7, or many used in real time with the 3D rader and EO sensors so that specific drone threats can be seen quickly and brought to an end. The ingenious part: the Drone Guard operator can opt to either turn off the enemy drone’s engine and send it into a tailspin, or “return to sender,” i.e., fly the bomb back to its point of origin.
One Drone Guard can do the work of many. For example, if any enemy force such as ISIS launches a squadron of drones on the attack, Drone Guard can take them on and destroy or re-route them.
The 3D Radar Difference
Classic parabolic radar uses a curved dish a curved surface with the cross-sectional shape of a parabolia to direct or capture radio waves. In operation since World War II, parabolic radar remains popular for radar applications in aerial surveillance. The downside of 2D radar is its broad elevation beam, which is unable to detect the altitude of a flying object. Early attempts at 3D radar tried modified parabolic reflectors with multiple feeds that in turn generated multiple receive beams in a stacked formation. However, the height calculations remained highly inaccurate.
The breakthrough in precise altitude calculation came with development of the phased array antenna, comprised of hundreds of tiny radiating elements, each capable of sending guided “pencil beams” into space while the antenna itself remained stationary. By applying a phase shifter, a microwave technology that can adjust the phase of each of the radiating elements, the phased array antenna can essentially “point and focus” on specific targets, determining their position in space in 3D, in other words by precise altitude.
Modern 3D has advanced even further, making it possible to assign specific RF values to different “echoes”captured by radar. A radar signal processor (RSP) uses special algorithms to classify radar echoes by power and spectrum. As a result, the RSP makes it possible to discriminate between relevant signals, and noise that is irrelevant to monitoring. Aiding in this procedure, a Moving Target Detector is used to classify the spectral properties of an echo into distinctly recognizable characteristics that indicate probable targets. These signals are routed to the radar system’s computer to filter out false targets and determine the direction, altitude and velocity of targets.
In the case of the ELTA Drone Guard, identifying and tracking inbound drones takes a matter of just seconds.
New ISIS Co-Pilot: Drone Guard with Hacking
The most exciting component of the new ELTA Drone Guard is a radio receiver with the ability to “grab the wheel” of any enemy drone and take total control of the winged device while in flight – hijacking it from the ground pilot at ISIS HQ. As the uninvited co-pilot, Drone Guard can then control the drone’s velocity, altitude and direction. It is a simple hack of the drone’s DSMx system, the world’s popular remote control system used with garage-grade drones such as those operated by ISIS.
Why simple? Because conventional DSMx is sent “in the clear,” without encryption. The RF exchange between the controller and drone is easily compromised by intercepting the protocol used and conducting a quick brute force attack. Call it a man-in-the-middle attack by trooper backpack. The ELTA Drone Guard synchronizes to the target drone’s frequency, impersonates the “pilot” control’s device, and emits a malicious control packet in the target’s path. The drone’s receiver then accepts the attacker’s signal as genuine. From that point on, the enemy operator is locked out and the friendly force attacker “owns” the drone.
DSMx is, of course, a hobbyist tool. But when and if ISIS drone control systems grow more advanced, ELTA already has the sophistication to master standard military RF protocols, as well.
Insider Surveillance rating for the ELTA Drone Guard: 5 Stars.