On approach to Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport, a savvy co-pilot flying an Air France Airbus A320 holding roughly 150 passengers saw what his autopilot feature could not: an unmanned drone. The consumer vehicle was spotted at 5,500 feet in the air, well above the 500 ft limit set by the The French Aviation Administration, and the co-pilot immediately disengaged the autopilot and performed an evasive maneuver that allowed the drone to pass under the plane’s left wing by a mere 16 feet.
“[A drone] can cause quite a bit of damage to the aircraft,” Javid Bayandor, director of the Crashworthiness for Aerospace Structures and Hybrids (CRASH) Lab, tells Inverse, noting that ultimately it’s passenger safety that should be of top concern. “We have to develop lightweight structures for us to be able to fly in. You can’t overly reinforce a structure that’s suppose to fly, therefore you have to be very careful about what’s in its path.”
These sorts of mid-air collisions and near-misses with drones have become ever more frequent as consumer drones become more popular. And of course they’re being flown around airports: How else are cutting-edge cinematographers going to capture cool 4K shots of planes landing for their latest indie films (coming to a YouTube near you)?
That’s why Bayandor and a host of other researchers are looking for solutions that would intercept drones in mid-air and protect the aircraft, the drones, and the lives of passengers.
The government is concerned, too, and has found its way into legislation reauthorizing funding for the Federal Aviation Administration. One of the bills, simply titled the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2016, has already passed the Senate with bipartisan support and includes funding for a pilot program to intercept drones flying in illegal air space.
From nets and radio wave guns to trained eagles, here are the top five drone-catching devices the government might consider for the program.
1. Bazooka net guns
Open Works Engineering produced the Skywall drone capturing system, which looks and basically operates like a large bazooka that shoots nets. In a humorously G.I. Jo-style video, the company explains how the gun’s smart scope is able to predict the movements of the drone and suggest the correct vertical angle and horizontal movement the user should fire at.
Once the trigger is pulled, a canister shoots out and ejects a net that entangles the drone. A parachute is then deployed so the drone can remain intact – both to prevent damage to others from debris and retain as much information for reconnaissance as possible.
However, as Bayandor points out, users have to be able to see the drone within eyesight to make this system work, and the gun only has a range of 400 meters.
2. Drones catching drones
If range is the problem for the Skywall, the Excipio Net Gun takes the same concept to the air. There’s no smart scope or parachute, but this drone attachment allows a user with a VR headset attached to chase an invading drone and shoot it down with a net mid-air.
There are also drones attached with large hanging nets that can scoop up the trespassing drones right out of the sky with brute force.
3. Radio wave guns
For more of a hacker-style drone takedown, Battelle Innovations offers the DroneDefender, which uses pulses of radio waves to slowly lower drones to the ground. The demonstration video is fairly impressive: It shows an operator point the futuristic looking device at a drone, which overrides its controls and stops its motion while it’s still in the sky. Then the operator slowly lowers the captured UAV to the ground.
However, this device, too, suffers from the themed-flaw of the Skywall in that it’s only functional at 400 meters out. Furthermore, DroneDefender isn’t approved by the Federal Communications Commission and isn’t being sold for consumer use. That wouldn’t be a barrier for government operated airports though.
4. Trained eagles
On the low-tech front, the Dutch National Police Corps announced a program to train eagles to intercept unwanted drones right out of the sky. The birds are pretty terrifying and impressively good at identifying and snatching up the unmanned vehicles.
Of course there’d come a point where sending a bird to chase a drone would place the fowl in danger.
“There are some drones that have very powerful motors and propellers; it’s not just plastic, it’s actually a composite or metallic blade, and you can’t put it in the path of a bird,” Bayandor of CRASH Lab says. “Just imagine if you have between six and 12 blades rotating around these larger drones and a bird is trying to reach that drone without hitting any of the blades.”
5. Protecting the plane
Bayandor says he and a team of Ph.D. candidates in the CRASH Lab are working on a system that would stop drones from even getting close enough to the planes in the first place. The project is something of which he’s “not at liberty to discuss” details.
“You can come up with ideas that would even [prevent] drones from getting anywhere close to the aircraft,” Bayandor says, suggesting the plane could emit radio frequencies or utilize signals from high-tech towers on the ground.
Sounds like your days of roaming the skies without consequence are numbered, drones.