Military Embedded Systems

Evolving UAS threats spur industry to get creative with C-UAS solutions


March 12, 2024

Dan Taylor

Technology Editor

Military Embedded Systems

U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Amelia Kang

Uncrewed systems once served merely a supporting role in the military – useful for certain niche tasks from explosive ordnance disposal to broad area surveillance, but not as a fundamental capability like tanks or aircraft. For more than a decade, uncrewed aerial systems (UASs) have delivered lethal capability, especially in the conflict in Ukraine. As the UAS threat evolves, so must countermeasures.

The capabilities provided by uncrewed aerial systems (UASs) to the U.S. military are force multipliers, but the same can be said for the technologies used by the U.S.ʼs adversaries. That reality is why industry must come up with creative solutions to keep pace with and counter UAS threats.

Growing UAS sophistication

The landscape of UAS threats has undergone significant transformation, reflecting advancements in technology and shifts in their application.

The rapid advancements have taken place across all domains, from air to sea to ground, says Kent Savre, senior director of strategy for Northrop Grumman (McLean, Virginia). The wars in Ukraine, the Nagorno-Karabakh War, and the Hamas-Israel war are “driving change at an immense rate,” Savre says.

Any individual can buy a drone and use it to cause harm, but at the scale that nation-states can leverage the tech – think drone swarms – defeating them is a critical military priority.

“Although access to drones has been available to the general public for some time, the increased usage for threats ranging from dropping contraband in prison yards, invading sporting event airspace, or worse, has become more commonplace,” says Jessica Beard, a business development executive at Benchmark Electronics (Tempe, Arizona). “For military threats, drone swarm simulations are beginning to take place ranging from a few drones to thousands, and the Pentagon recently began to focus on methods to neutralize swarms.”

Modern conflicts are not only testing grounds but also accelerators for UAS technologies, enhancing their autonomy, operational range, and destructive capabilities.

“The operational environment today is increasingly transparent – thousands of drones are in use in Ukraine and Israel today,” Savre says. “In the maritime domain, in a clear example of how fast evolution is occurring, one just needs to look how the Ukrainians have advanced the surface drone strike capability against the Russian Black Sea fleet.”

The rise of noncooperative drones further complicates the landscape, says Anne Stephan, vice president of critical infrastructure and networks for Rohde & Schwarz (Munich, Germany) – a challenge increased by a lack of open systems.

“Protective measures can only be taken after a threat is detected,” she says. “The importance of noncooperative drones with proprietary software and firmware has continued to grow in recent years. This makes detection for decoding systems more difficult. … To effectively counter the threat, early warning is necessary – every second counts.”

UAS countermeasures

As UAS threats have grown more sophisticated, so too have the countermeasures designed to neutralize them. Beard says that Benchmark is focusing its efforts on systems that are portable, as well as on technology that allows for RF takeover on commercially sold drones to track both UAS and user. (Figure 1.)

“Militaries will most likely utilize a layered approach, including detection systems, landing and/or jamming technologies, and missile and laser countermeasures,” she says.

[Figure 1 ǀ SD filters from Benchmark remove potential radar altimeter interference without increasing size and weight. (Photo: Benchmark)]

While raw capability is of course important to militaries, Stephan notes that operators are asking for more user-friendliness in the design, leading to the conclusion that the industry should not forget the importance of designing for operational practicality and ease of use.

Modern counter-UAS systems are more integrated now than they have been in the past, Savre says. “Highly automated, AI [artificial intelligence] and machine learning (ML)-enabled, full kill chain solutions are available with a flexible mix of long range/short range sensors, network C2 connectivity, and kinetic and non-kinetic effectors,” he says. An example of this is Northrop Grumman’s Mobile Acquisition Cueing and Effector (M-ACE) system that is in development.

“The number-one challenge now is compressing the kill chain as AI and autonomy drivers increase in the marketplace,” Savre continues. “This is followed closely by having full mobile capability on a platform that can hide and not emit [signatures] as much as possible.”

There’s a growing need for more sophisticated countermeasures, including kinetic solutions like missiles and directed energy weapons, he adds. This evolution reflects an arms race between drone capabilities and counter-drone technologies, where advances in one domain spur developments in the other. [Figure 2.]

[Figure 2 ǀ Blue Thunder, Northrop Grumman’s gun truck concept armed with the company’s M230 Link Fed Chain Gun. (Photo: Northrop Grumman.)]

Time and scalability

Early detection and an ability to scale are drone countermeasure challenges that industry is looking to solve.

Beard says regulatory and scalability issues can be problematic. Specifically, state and local government entities can be an obstacle in developing these solutions, and companies with the best solutions to protect the public are often smaller companies that don’t have the capability to quickly scale operations.

Beard says her company is providing supply-chain architecture, review, and design for production manufacturability, and creative inventory modeling to make it easier to scale C-UAS products and bring them to a wider market.

While speed of scale is an important procurement and production consideration, speed of detection may matter most on the battlefield.

“When it comes to countering drones, time is of the essence,” Rohde’s Stephan says. “Malicious or noncooperative drones must be detected as early as possible to give decision-makers the maximum time possible to respond to threats and avert potentially disastrous consequences.”

Along those lines Rohde & Schwarz has built its ARDRONIS family of counter-drone technologies. The system detects commercial drone activity, automatically classifies the type of drone signal, determines the direction of the drone and its pilot, and disrupts the radio control link to prevent the drone from reaching its target. [Figure 3.]

[Figure 3 ǀ ARDRONIS Locate Advanced provides early warning and threat classification to selected individuals, which includes the capability to locate and track FHSS [frequency-hopping spread spectrum] signals, and geolocate drones and ground-control stations. (Photo: Rohde & Schwarz.)]

In the pipeline

Today, UAS and counter-UAS technology development points towards a future where automation, integration, and swarming technologies play central roles.

Northrop Grumman’s Savre sees a shift toward highly automated counter-UAS systems. “For C-UAS, it is about automating the kill chain and kill web to the point of decision for the human operator,” he says. “Faster decision-making and systems that are in a nondedicated role … is the key to defeating unmanned threats that are becoming greater in number on the battlefield.”

Making counter-drone systems easy to use for military personnel should also be a priority as not everything can be automated.

“User-friendliness is becoming increasingly important and in the future automatic systems will also be used; these will not only detect and locate but also offer react possibilities,” Stephan says.

Joint solutions that leverage partnerships between companies will create more sophisticated counter-drone systems with multiple levels of capability. Beard says the industry will see companies integrating their separate solutions like Anduril and Epirus, who combined their Lattice and Leonidas systems in 2023 to demonstrate command-and-control tech to the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory.


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