Columbia-based Department 13 develops software to thwart drone threats

Columbia-based Department 13 develops software to thwart drones

Drones have carried explosives for terrorists overseas, dropped contraband into prisons and even landed on the White House lawn.

As the use of drones becomes more widespread among businesses and hobbyists, the safety and security challenges associated with the unmanned aerial vehicles are on the rise.

Even as drone-related businesses mushroom, another cottage industry is emerging to offer protection against unwanted drones. One of the early entrants in the drone defense business is a Columbia-based company known as Department 13.

The company's signature software, called MESMER, essentially takes over unwanted drones to block them from entering a protected area, redirect them or even land them in a safe space. The approach offers an alternative to other options such as shooting down a drone or capturing one with a net, techniques that pose safety hazards, or jamming its radio signals, which is illegal.

Department 13 launched the software program in January and announced its first sale last week, a demonstration contract with Booz Allen Hamilton. The Virginia-based consulting firm and government contractor is licensing the technology to use it in demonstrations to the U.S. military, primarily the Navy and Marine Corps. Terms of the contract were not disclosed.

Booz Allen said in a statement that Department 13's technology will help Booz Allen work with clients to come up with solutions to their security challenges more quickly.

Jonathan Hunter, Department 13's chairman and CEO, said he sees broad applications for the software in both the defense and commercial sectors, and expects the deal with Booz Allen to be the first of many for Department 13.

"It's not just the military, it's not just governments," Hunter said. "It's sporting events, arenas, open-air venues, commercial-sector companies."

Small drones, those weighing 55 pounds or less, have become increasingly plentiful in the United States since the Federal Aviation Administration issued regulations for their use last year. More than 670,000 drones were registered last year, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates their flight.

They're being used to survey farmers' crops, photograph real estate sites and soon might deliver Amazon packages and groceries.

But drones also can be used in nefarious ways: to spy on a corporation, illegally film sporting events or drop a biological or chemical weapon over a packed outdoor concert venue, said Matt Scassero, director of the University of Maryland's Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Site.

"Any technology you come up with can be misused, no matter what the technology is," Scassero said.

Companies looking to protect themselves and their customers are seeking ways to counter drones, he said.

The challenge, Scassero said, is finding a way to thwart a drone that doesn't endanger people on the ground.

Department 13's software, housed in a server box, detects when a drone is approaching and can be programmed to automatically respond by diverting the drone or landing it in a designated place. The program also has a manual setting, which alerts users to an approaching drone and lets them decide how to respond. The software works by manipulating the drone's radio control communication system and making its commands a priority over the original operator's signals.

Founded in 2010 by its chief technology officer, Robi Sen, the company turned to the Australian stock exchange in 2015 to raise about $4.6 million through a reverse listing, a path some American technology companies have chosen because it is easier and potentially more lucrative than going public in the United States. The company raised another $4.6 million — $6 million in Australian dollars — in July.

In addition to its commercial uses, Department 13 thinks its software could benefit troops overseas.

Drones could become a popular weapon among ISIS and other terrorist groups because they are relatively inexpensive and easy to use, said Dan Gettinger, co-director of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College in New York State.

"There's a growing realization that low-cost drones could become the [improvised explosive devices] of the sky," said Gettinger, referring to the amateur explosives and bombs that were widely used in the Iraq War.

The U.S. military has experimented with dozens of ways to combat enemy drones, such as lasers and missiles that fire bullets with nets inside to capture a drone, Gettinger said.

If enemy drones become prolific, the military will need to find a way to combat them that is relatively inexpensive, he said.

"The challenge is if drones are going to become the IEDs of the sky, you can't equip every patrol with a laser," Gettinger said. "It's not feasible from an expense point of view,"

Department 13's software is designed to be portable — it can be installed on a rooftop or in a vehicle. The company is also in talks with equipment manufacturers about the possibility of integrating its software into other tools troops carry, such as a technical backpack, Hunter said.

John E. Pike, director of the military information website GlobalSecurity.org, said he thinks the threat of enemy drones is overblown.

"The enemy is not interested in precision attack," Pike said. "Why would they go through the trouble of getting a drone off eBay when they could just load up a car full of artillery shells and blow up the whole marketplace?"

At the same time, he said he understands why the military may be interested in counter-drone measures such as Department 13's software.

"Just in case," Pike said, "You wouldn't want to have the evildoers show up with a bunch of drones and the military says, 'Well, gee, we didn't think of that.'"

sarah.gantz@baltsun.com

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