MITRE Challenge Seeks Ideas to Counter Unauthorized Unmanned Aircraft

January 2016
Topics: Aviation and Aeronautics, Unmanned Systems, Sensor Technology, Technology Investment Planning
The use of small, unmanned aircraft systems is growing quickly. But risks are growing, too, as untrained users and even criminals launch them into airspace. The MITRE Challenge is offering a prize for workable solutions to neutralize suspicious drones.
Three researchers use a whiteboard to illustrate their ideas about unauthorized drones.

With 700,000 small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), a.k.a. "drones," purchased in 2015 alone, you’re sure to see one in your area soon. Let's hope it’s not out the window of your airplane as it approaches the runway. Close encounters with airplanes and helicopters increased by 762 percent in June 2015 compared to June 2014.

A combination of sophisticated technology, ease of use, and low price is driving the explosion of small UAS in the skies, as are the extraordinarily diverse applications in recreational use alone. But while most of us envision use cases such as aerial photography and package delivery, others are exploring more hazardous applications such as carrying medical supplies, radioactive material, and even firearms.

MITRE and our government sponsors, such as the Federal Aviation Administration, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Homeland Security, want to be sure that this rapidly increasing popularity of small UAS doesn’t put the public at risk. To effectively protect citizens, the government needs a way to determine whether a UAS is acting suspiciously and, if so, to safely interdict it.

MITRE has issued the Countering Unauthorized UAS Challenge to explore a wide range of innovative ideas for ensuring safe use. The Challenge is open to any innovator or innovators—from the lone entrepreneur operating out of a garage, to a student, a start-up, a consortium, or a corporation. Winners will share a $100,000 prize package and have the opportunity to showcase their solutions to government agencies.

Filling a Gap in Counter-UAS Technologies

"Like the government, MITRE believes that challenges are an effective way to attract great ideas from around the country – ideas that could help us solve big problems, such as ensuring the safety of the skies and the citizens," says Dr. Mark Maybury, MITRE vice president and chief technology officer.

"Since MITRE is a not-for-profit organization that works in the public interest, we're in a great position to see these ideas objectively. We can combine and apply them in ways that might not be obvious to organizations with a commercial stake in the outcome. And because we work with so many government agencies, we have unusual insight into their most pressing shared concerns."

MITRE has worked on issues related to unmanned aircraft ever since their huge potential for military, government, commercial, and hobbyist applications became clear about 15 years ago. Since 2009, we've collaborated with the FAA, DoD, and DHS to develop methods and strategies for safely integrating unmanned systems into the national airspace, while also pursuing technological developments through the MITRE R&D program. Our experts have also worked with industry, from start-ups to information systems giants, on applying the technology to commercial activities.

"This challenge is a natural extension of our work," says Andrew Lacher, MITRE’s UAS enterprise leader. "After helping safely introduce unmanned aircraft into the civilian airspace, MITRE is taking the next step to help ensure that their unauthorized operations don’t create safety and security issues."

Tackling Smaller, Consumer-sized Drones

"The government has been exploring counter-UAS technologies for a while, but most of this effort is focused on larger models of UAS and on military activities that would not be appropriate in urban areas," explains MITRE's Dr. Michael Balazs, who co-leads the Challenge with Jonathan Rotner. "For example, some counter-UAS technologies include lasers that target the drone and set it on fire or guns that shoot it out of the sky. Another technology is designed to jam the signal so that the drone freezes in midair and falls to the ground."

"These approaches, however, could potentially cause even greater harm by unleashing lethal payloads on the public," adds Rotner. "In our challenge, we’re looking for solutions that are applicable within U.S. regulations and can be safely used in real-world urban areas."

The MITRE Challenge focuses on consumer grade, small UAS (those that weigh less than five pounds.) Drones this size can still transport dangerous payloads and spread toxins. "For instance, in April 2015, a drone carrying sand with trace amounts of radiation landed on the roof of the office of the Prime Minister of Japan," says Rotner. "Whether radioactive materials, biological agents, or a stick of dynamite, the drone’s payload poses a significant challenge to safe interdiction—especially in heavily populated urban areas."

Safe and Soft Landings

The MITRE Challenge Team is looking for methods to detect drones, determine if they are unauthorized, and interdict them. That means the proposed solution must be able to spot and track a UAS and then determine if it's a potential threat on the basis of its geographic location and trajectory. We're also looking for technology that provides a way of safely interdicting the drone without unleashing its payload. That means bringing the drone to a safe zone.

The Challenge consists of two phases. In Phase 1, Challenge participants must submit a white paper explaining their solutions. The deadline for the first phase of the Challenge is February 7, 2016. A panel of experts from MITRE and several federal agencies will evaluate the proposals.

Then the MITRE Challenge Team will select the most promising to advance to Phase 2, which involves live flight evaluations in a realistic environment. During that test, which will occur in August 2016, competitors must detect UAS in flight, determine which ones represent threats, and then safely interdict them.

"We will reward people who solve part of the Challenge—for example by just detecting and determining threats or just interdicting UAS—and give a bigger reward to those who develop an end-to-end solution," says Balazs. "We’ll be looking for proposed technologies that are affordable to the government organizations that need them, from federal agencies to local law enforcement. Solutions must also be deal with multiple simultaneous threats, as well as operate within U.S. laws and regulations."

"We're very excited about the wide range of possible participants who have shown interest in the Challenge, and we expect to receive some valuable and unexpected solutions!" adds Rotner. "This Challenge will explore what's possible. While there are many valuable uses for small drones, we’ll see just as many nefarious uses, and we must be prepared."

—by Twig Mowatt


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