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Dronejacker: Florida professor invents system to seize control of unmanned aircraft

The minds behind the Dronejacker system are, from left, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University doctorate students Shuteng Niu, Jian Wang, Drone Defense Systems CEO and Founder Sotirios George Kaminis, and ERAU professor Houbing Song. Dronejacker uses sound to detect drones before taking control of them. They will be testing radio frequencies inside ERAU'ss Anechoic Chamber. Those frequencies will be used to safely hijack rogue drones and guide them back to safety.

EMBRY-RIDDLE AERONAUTICAL UNIVERSITY/DAVID MASSEY/TNS

By T.S. JARMUSZ | The News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Fla. | Published: June 19, 2019

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — An Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University professor has invented an artificial intelligence program that can hijack rogue drones, safely neutralizing any possible threat.

The invention is the brainchild of ERAU assistant professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Houbing Song. He came up with the idea after noticing an uptick in unauthorized drone sightings.

"Reports of unmanned aircraft sightings (UAS) from pilots, citizens, and law enforcement have increased dramatically over the past five years," Song said. "The FAA now receives more than 100 such reports each month."

Critics of drones have long cited privacy concerns as a reason for stiffer regulation. And then there are the cases where they delayed — or even ruined — sporting events. More recently, drones were responsible for grounding hundreds of flights at London's Gatwick Airport during the busy Christmas holiday week of 2018.

However, drones can be more than just a nuisance. A 2018 study from the University of Dayton showed that should a drone crash into a commercial jet, the result could be dire.

Drones also have been used for more nefarious actions, like the August assassination attempt on Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.

The threats drones pose aren't limited to overseas lands. Experts say Americans, too, are at risk of a drone terrorist attack.

"The FBI assesses that, given their retail availability, lack of verified identification requirement to procure, general ease of use, and prior use overseas, UAS will be used to facilitate an attack in the United States against a vulnerable target, such as a mass gathering," FBI Director Christopher A. Wray wrote in an October letter to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

While there are current counter drone systems available, they have limitations. For one, systems that use projectiles or the more creative web-slinger version can cause the drone to crash, posing a risk to people or objects below it. And the technology doesn't come cheaply.

At upwards of $12 million, the cost of some of those systems can make them too expensive for smaller airports or private venues, said founder and CEO of Daytona Beach-based Drone Defense Systems LLC Sotirios George Kaminis, who is collaborating with ERAU to market the Dronejacker system.

ERAU's system doesn't cause rogue drones to crash, and it can be installed at a much lower cost, Kaminis said.

How drone hijacking works

Song, who has degrees in computing, communications, control and transportation, said his multidisciplinary background allowed him to "develop novel ideas at the intersection" of computer science, communications, networks, and cybersecurity. His invention fits that description.

The Dronejacker has two sections. The first section consists of a series of listening posts outfitted with advanced microphones that would hear the drones so-to-speak as they neared an airport for example. Automated software would analyze the sound and if an unauthorized drone were detected, the system would use pattern-recognition algorithms to decipher the drone's video-streaming channel, interrupting the broadcast with a warning message.

If the message was ignored, the system would send the drone's information to a computer control center equipped with an antenna that would cross-reference a registration safe list of sorts before transmitting a new signal to hijack the drone, Kaminis said.

"It disrupts communication between the pilot and the drone," Kaminis said. "It detects the drone, finds out what language the drone speaks, activates an emulation system that mimics the drone's language, and snatches control away from the pilot."

The system would be fully autonomous, or totally independent of humans. It would also follow the same screening procedures that military systems employ, Kaminis said.

However, unlike military-grade systems, the technology isn't considered a weapon, and it doesn't destroy the drone or cause it to crash, he added.

As for the threat of using the technology to disable legitimate drones, like those used by emergency responders, Song said it would be unlikely because the technology would be incredibly hard to duplicate.

There's nothing quite like the system the on the market, Kaminis said. The idea is so novel, Kaminis said he thought it could make history for ERAU.

And if things go as planned, Volusia County would be at the center of it all.

A Volusia County business

Kaminis, himself an ERAU alumnus and former Daytona Beach resident, said he first was troubled by the potential damage drones can cause about six years ago.

"Drones have been weaponized for several years now. Their malicious use started in the Middle East and remained obscured to the general public but not to the Federal Government and governments around the world," he said. "Additionally, the growing sales of drones to the civilian population for legitimate use, pose an accidental risk to the safety and integrity of everyday operations such as commercial aviation."

After researching the issue extensively, he decided to act and founded his Daytona Beach company in 2016.

"The services we offer include scalable, intelligent, autonomous systems that can accurately detect multiple drones and stop them dead in their tracks, period," he said.

However, Kaminis' company was focused on counter drone measures that jammed drones and caused them to crash. Those types of jamming systems also interfere with communications and GPS signals, he said.

With ERAU's system, none of that is an issue, he said.

The technology will be licensed by ERAU, while Drone Defense Systems LLC will retain exclusive rights to it. Kaminis will work with ERAU to refine the technology, build a prototype, and pursue related ideas.

"Our plan is to invest in manufacturing within Volusia County and of course this means generating jobs," Kaminis said.

The product is expected to be available for use by just about anyone, including the military. While airports and governments would be the likely buyers, Kaminis also said he plans to market at least one limited version of the system for civilians that would be "extremely affordable."

The next steps call for commercializing the Dronejacker: building a prototype, testing it in real-time, updating it and then manufacturing it. Kaminis said he'd be reaching out to local government leaders to see if there are any incentives to set-up shop locally.

He said he plans to hire about six people over the next four to five months and then hire another 15-20 more when the updated product is ready to be manufactured. As for the pay, Kaminis said it would be typical of other startups, where the initial hires might need to put in long hours, but would be compensated with private shares of the company stock.

"The new technology is what this industry was missing and what our government — any government was waiting for use in high-risk installations, such as airports," Kaminis said. "I see the future of the company as very bright and will try to keep it in the county, mainly because of my relationship with Embry-Riddle."

©2019 The News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Fla.

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