Mich Tech prof developing drone to catch other drones

Charles E. Ramirez
The Detroit News

Interest in drones is soaring and experts predict their use will only skyrocket. But what happens when the unmanned aerial vehicles go rogue or enter restricted airspace?

A Michigan Technological University professor is working on a way for agencies to safely take down runaway flying machines should they threaten air traffic, military bases, government buildings or sporting events.

“I envision this technology being used by law enforcement to provide security and counter rouge drones,” said Mohammad Rastgaar-Aagah, an associate professor with Michigan Tech’s Mechanical Engineering Department in Houghton.

“The system we’re developing will quickly capture a drone and remove it from an area so it’s no longer a threat to anyone’s safety.”

Rastgaar’s system involves a drone that can shoot a net at other unmanned aircraft and haul them in. He likens using the unmanned aircraft to catch other drones to falconry, the sport where falcons or other birds of prey are trained to hunt.

“If law enforcement officers see a drone where there shouldn’t be one, they turn the system on and send it toward a rogue drone to catch it, take it somewhere safe and land with it,” he said.

He said he got the idea for his drone catcher while watching a 2014 World Cup soccer match. A commentator mentioned there were snipers in the Brazilian stadium to deal with threats, he said. Rastgaar wondered how they would handle a drone carrying something dangerous flying over the field.

He discussed it with some of his students, and his idea for a drone catcher was born and a patent filed.

UAVs are remote-controlled, pilotless aircraft. They can look like airplanes, jets and missiles or resemble spiders with several helicopter-like rotor blades. They can be small enough to fit in the palm of your hand or as long as a 43-foot yacht. The machines can cost from as little as $30 for toys to as much as hundreds of thousands for professional-grade versions.

Most people use the flying devices for fun and to snap pictures or record video with a bird’s-eye view. The Federal Aviation Administration estimates Americans bought 1.6 million small unmanned aircraft in 2015, half during the last three months of the year.

In the near future, they may be used to deliver purchases made online, dust crops for farmers or help firefighters rescue people.

Regulations on horizon

The FAA recently announced it will require unmanned aircraft to be registered to make it easier to identify owners and educate novice pilots. The move was spurred by numerous reports of drones flying near jets and airports.

Michigan State Police Lt. Mike Shaw said unmanned aircraft have yet to become a problem for authorities working at the scenes of accidents or crimes.

“Most of the time, (pilots) have to be in the line of sight, and it’s not like we’re not going to be able to find out who’s using one and tell him to knock it off,” Shaw said.

Last year, the Michigan State Police became the country’s first police agency with statewide authorization to deploy UAVs to photograph car accident scenes or survey other emergency situations. The agency has two.

Steve Chait, a pilot and attorney who specializes in aviation law, said a number of legal issues have risen because of the proliferation of unmanned aircraft.

“It’s such a new technology that’s developed faster than law or the FAA’s ability to regulate them has,” said Chait, who chairs the Michigan Bar Association’s Aviation Law Unit. “We’re all pioneers watching and trying to figure out where it’s going to go.”

But some UAV owners and users say while Rastgaar’s system is interesting, it isn’t necessary.

“I feel model aircraft, in particular the multi-rotors most of the public refers to as drones, have been unfairly portrayed as a menace,” said Jonathan Hair, 28, of Royal Oak, who is a recreational unmanned aircraft flier. “Can technology be used inappropriately? Of course. But there’s been some very limited cases of people using them inappropriately.”

Hair has flown model aircraft for more than 15 years and got into multi-rotor UAVs a couple of years ago.

“Despite the hype, model aviation has almost a century of safe use, and it’s disappointing the hobby is being viewed in a criminal light,” he said.

Drone-less alternative

Harry Arnold said he foresees the arrival of technology that will deal with rouge drones without a drone.

“I think in the future you’ll see a backup control channel that law enforcement agencies will be able to use to take control of a drone at the push of a button,” said Arnold, who owns Detroit Drone, a 7-year-old aerial photography and video company. “It’ll be technology that will be built into drones.”

But Rastgaar and a group of colleagues and students have developed a proof of concept, a working model to demonstrate the system’s feasibility.

He said the group is still working on the drone and one of its objectives is making its unmanned aircraft autonomous.

“You can’t expect all law enforcement officers to be pilots and be able to do crazy maneuvers with drones,” Rastgaar said. “It has to be intelligent enough to predict when and where to shoot its net.”

The timetable for completing work on his aerial vehicle depends on whether he can get funding for it, he said.