Pentagon Organizing Contests to Counter Enemy Drones

By Harper, Jon | National Defense, February 2017 | Go to article overview

Pentagon Organizing Contests to Counter Enemy Drones


Harper, Jon, National Defense


The U.S. military is turning to contests that are open to nontraditional vendors to find innovative solutions to the growing danger posed by small enemy drones.

The upcoming challenges--one hosted by SOFWERX and the other by the Joint Improvised-Threat Defeat Organization--are focused on countering the types of unmanned aerial systems that can be purchased at brick-and-mortar stores or online. More and more of them are appearing on the battlefield, according to defense officials.

"U.S. forces are reporting lots of contact with this kind of UAS," Tony Davis, the director of acquisition agility at Special Operations Command, said in an interview with National Defense.

The Islamic State is using this type of equipment extensively, noted Army Lt. Gen. Michael Shields, the director of JIDO.

"ISIL is probably one of the most prolific terror groups when it comes to innovation in improvised weapons and then developing tactics to incorporate these innovations," Shields said.

"One of their most dangerous innovations has been the introduction of commercially available drones, drone technology and technical components to the battlefield," he added.

They are using them for a variety of missions including intelligence collection, support to ground forces, coordinating fire support and maneuver, adjusting indirect fire and facilitating improvised explosive device attacks. The group has also embraced them as a propaganda tool and a weapons delivery platform, Shields noted.

"It is their precision-guided munition," he said. "They're well integrated with their combat operations and ... they definitely pose a threat to U.S. and coalition forces, not to mention the homeland."

Pentagon officials are hoping that contests open to nontraditional vendors will yield new technologies and methods for taking on these enemy assets.

SOFWERX, an organization that helps connect SOCOM with technology innovators in the private sector, hosts monthly OpenWERX challenges to pursue innovative solutions to problems that the command is facing.

The outfit recently set up a prize contest to pit technologists against commercially available small drones.

"The idea is by tapping into non-traditional partners we may get ideas that we aren't getting or aren't getting fast enough from traditional defense industry or from within," said Davis. The initiative aims to draw in academia, startup businesses and "just the guy that likes to work on stuff on his weekends in his garage."

Like the other challenges that SOFWERX hosts, this one stems from input provided by commandos out in the field.

"We're actually pulling these Open-WERX challenges from conversations with our operators," said Davis. "This [counter-UAS challenge] was ... something they're interested in."

Contestants in the Ghost Busters: DJI Phantom Exploits contest have been tasked to find as many vulnerabilities as possible in DJI Phantom 3 and 4 drones including command and control and onboard video subsystems. These commercially available UAS fall into the Group 1 category, meaning they weigh 20 pounds or less.

The technology can be purchased on Amazon and other retail websites.

Teams have been tasked to produce exploits and delivery mechanisms that can degrade the effectiveness of systems and components used for navigation, flight and payload usage. Technologies that would enable U.S. forces to crash an enemy drone or take control of it are also desired, according to a SOFWERX description of the challenge.

Davis anticipates that teams will primarily be conducting cyber attacks against drones. For this competition "we're mostly talking about cyber vulnerabilities and cyber threats," he said.

In addition to finding new ways to combat enemy unmanned aerial vehicles, SOCOM also sees the event as an opportunity to learn how to better protect U. …

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