Drones have been used for a lot more than making videos and delivering pizzas.
They have dropped drugs into prison yards, scouted out illegal border crossings, and grounded lifesaving aerial firefighting efforts by accidentally wandering into the flight path.
The sky may be the limit for drones, but local law enforcement agencies are looking for a way to bring them back to earth.
A new electronic device called a “drone killer” could be the answer.
The Oceanside Police Department recently acquired San Diego County’s first drone killer, an electronic device that can disable a drone in the sky and force it back to the ground.
Other area law enforcement agencies also are considering the technology as a way to rein in unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs.
“The purpose is primarily for emergency situations,” Oceanside police Lt. Aaron Doyle said last week. “It won’t be used when someone complains about a neighbor flying a drone. It’s pretty much for a life-or-death situation, to save lives.”
The need arose in December during North County’s Lilac fire, which destroyed more than 150 structures and forced thousands of residents to flee their homes in the path of the flames. During the blaze, someone sent up a drone that forced aerial firefighting operations to cease for more than an hour to avoid a possible collision.
“Shutting down the operations for an hour can be critical to saving lives,” Doyle said. “We started looking for options in case it happened again.”
The search led officers to IXI Technology in Yorba Linda, a company that has been supplying high-tech electronic equipment to the U.S. military for 35 years, and a new device it released in 2017. The company agreed to donate one of the drone killers, worth about $30,000, and made a formal presentation to the Police Department at the Oceanside City Council meeting on March 28.
“We are the first law enforcement agency in San Diego County to have this device,” Police Chief Frank McCoy said at the meeting.
The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department also has looked at anti-drone technology and acknowledges a need for the devices, sheriff’s Lt. Karen Stubkjaer said in an email.
“We currently are not using this type of equipment, but have not ruled it out for future use,” she said. “Terrorist organizations are utilizing drones as well as organized narcotic groups. This type of technology may be important in the future to safeguard the county jails, courthouses and communities.”
The device, which looks like a gun, can be aimed like a rifle or a shotgun at a drone in the air. The 30-degree field of its beam and its range of almost a half-mile make the target hard to miss.
“In short, it breaks the command and control between the drone and the operator,” said Andy Morabe of IXI Technology.
The airborne drone, depending on how it is programmed, will do one of three things. It will either return to its “home,” which is the place it was launched, hover in place or go straight to the ground and land.
The company’s anti-drone device was first used by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to protect the 2017 Rose Parade, Morabe said. Since then, it has been used at a number of large public events around Los Angeles.
The device can stop almost any of the hundreds of models of remotely controlled aircraft that are available, Morabe said.
When a new drone is encountered that the device can’t defeat, the anti-drone software will be rewritten to include the new model and an update will be issued within days, he said. Operators can download the update from the internet, just like any new or updated app for a phone or computer.
Advancing technology and lower prices have led to a proliferation of drones in recent years, from the small ones with cameras sold online and in department stores to large ones used by the military to carry weapons. Drones have been used by criminals to drop contraband into prison yards, and by drug cartels to monitor the U.S. Mexico border, Morabe said.
U.S penitentiaries, the Border Patrol, and the military are all interested in the anti-drone technology, he said. Marines at Camp Pendleton trained with the device just last month, according to a story by Reuters news service.
Law enforcement agencies across the United States are rapidly adopting the use of drones.
The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department became the first law enforcement agency in the county to use drones for surveillance in 2016. The eyes in the sky have assisted in dozens of homicide investigations, SWAT incidents and search-and-rescue missions.
The Chula Vista Police Department bought its first two drones this year, and police in Carlsbad and Escondido have said they are interested.
The Oceanside Police Department acquired its first drone a few months ago, Doyle said.
“It’s a great tool to use to find people who are missing,” he said, whether it’s an Alzheimer’s patient who just walked away from home, or a criminal fleeing a crime. The drone has a heat-sensitive infrared camera to help locate people at night.
“Right now, we can only fly it during the day,” he said. “The program is still in its infancy.”
Officers are working to become certified by the Federal Aviation Administration and to establish local policies for when drones and the anti-drone device can or should be used.
Oceanside’s location next to Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base, where training frequently causes brush fires, increases the need for a way to control drones during emergencies, Doyle said.
The Oceanside City Council gave its initial approval to a drone ordinance Nov. 1 and is still awaiting a final version. That ordinance, when finished later this year, is expected to prohibit drones over occupied schools and some other public places and may require a permit to operate drones in some situations.
Police often hear complaints about drones invading people’s privacy and in some cases creating a safety hazard. Last year, a drone hit an unsuspecting beachgoer, causing a minor injury, near the Oceanside pier.
Several cities already have adopted policies for the use of drones.
Poway approved an ordinance in 2015 that restricts the use of drones over much of the city, but officials said it will only be enforced in emergencies, such as to protect aircraft fighting wildfires.
The county Board of Supervisors last year prohibited the use of amateur drones within three miles of a fire or any other area declared off-limits for an emergency.
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