A Maryland-based company claims it can take control over an enemy drone while in flight without the use of jamming, a potential game-changer for the US military, prisons, and airports.
Started in 2010, Department 13 came out of DARPA-funded research into radio frequencies and Bluetooth technology. That was when CEO Jonathan Hunter realized his work could have real effects in mitigating radio-controlled drone aircraft — a frequent, and growing nuisance to militaries as well as the private sector.
Related: Drones being used in war
Drones being used in war
Drones being used in war
A U.S. airman guides a U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone as it taxis to the runway at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan March 9, 2016. To match Exclusive AFGHANISTAN-DRONES/ REUTERS/Josh Smith/File photo
A U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone flies over Creech Air Force Base in Nevada during a training mission May 19, 2016. Picture taken May 19, 2016. REUTERS/Josh Smith
U.S. airmen control a U.S. Air Force drone from a command trailer at Kandahar Air Field, Afghanistan March 9, 2016. Picture taken March 9, 2016. REUTERS/Josh Smith
Three 500-pound bombs wait to be loaded on U.S. Air Force drones at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan March 9, 2016. To match Exclusive AFGHANISTAN-DRONES/ REUTERS/Josh Smith/File Photo
A U.S. airman controls the sensors on a U.S. Air Force drone from a command trailer at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan March 9, 2016. To match Exclusive AFGHANISTAN-DRONES/ REUTERS/Josh Smith/File Photo
A U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone sits armed with Hellfire missiles and a 500-pound bomb in a hanger at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan March 9, 2016. To match Exclusive AFGHANISTAN-DRONES/ REUTERS/Josh Smith/File Photo TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
U.S. Air Force ground crew secure weapons and other components of an MQ-9 Reaper drone after it returned from a mission, at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan March 9, 2016. To match Exclusive AFGHANISTAN-DRONES/ REUTERS/Josh Smith/File photo
A U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone takes off from Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan March 9, 2016. To match Exclusive AFGHANISTAN-DRONES/ REUTERS/Josh Smith/File Photo
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Various U.S. military drones are seen at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington September 1, 2015. REUTERS/Gary Cameron
The Navmar Applied Sciences Corp. TigerShark is escorted off the runway after landing during "Black Dart", a live-fly, live fire demonstration of 55 unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, at Naval Base Ventura County Sea Range, Point Mugu, near Oxnard, California July 31, 2015. REUTERS/Patrick T. Fallon
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People gather near the wreckage of a car destroyed by a U.S. drone air strike that targeted suspected al Qaeda militants in August 2012, in the al-Qatn district of the southeastern Yemeni province of Hadhramout February 5, 2013. U.S. drones have launched almost daily raids on suspected al Qaeda militants in Yemen during the past two weeks, and air strikes have aggravated discontent among Yemenis, who say the strikes pose a threat to civilians. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah (YEMEN - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST MILITARY SOCIETY)
An X-47B pilot-less drone combat aircraft is launched for the first time off an aircraft carrier, the USS George H. W. Bush, in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Virginia, May 14, 2013. The U.S. Navy made aviation history on Tuesday by catapulting an unmanned jet off an aircraft carrier for the first time, testing a long-range, stealthy, bat-winged plane that represents a jump forward in drone technology. REUTERS/Jason Reed (UNITED STATES - Tags: MILITARY SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
A U.S. Navy serviceman (L) prepares to launch an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) with Philippine Navy servicemen aboard a patrol boat during a joint annual military exercise called "Carat" at former U.S. military base Sangley Point in Cavite city, west of Manila June 28, 2013. REUTERS/Erik De Castro (PHILIPPINES - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY)
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"We've learned how to speak drone talk," Hunter told Business Insider. Though D13's technology has often been described as "hacking" a drone, he likes to describe it differently. Instead, his black box of antennas and sensors, called Mesmer, is able to take over a drone by manipulating the protocols being used by its original operator.
Let's say someone is trying to fly a commercial drone over the walls of a prison complex to drop off some goodies for inmates — a problem that is increasing as off-the-shelf drones get better and less expensive. The prison can use Mesmer to set up an invisible geofence around its physical walls that stops a drone in its tracks, or takes complete control and brings it into the prison and lands it.
"If I can speak the same language as the drone, I don't need to scream louder, i.e. jamming" Hunter said.
D13 was one of eight finalists last year in a counter-drone challenge at Quantico, Va., where it stopped a drone out to one kilometer away, though the company didn't win first place (the winner, Skywall 100, uses a human-fired launcher to shoot a projectile at a drone to capture it in a net). D13 also demonstrated the ability to safely land a hostile drone with its technology at a security conference in October.
Besides setting up an invisible wall for drones, Mesmer can sometimes tap into telemetry data the drone would normally send back to the operator, or tap into its video feed. In some cases, Hunter said, it could even track down the person flying it.
The system does have its drawbacks: It only works on "known" commercial drones, so the library of drones it's effective against only covers about 75% of the marketplace, according to Scout. That number is also likely much less for non-commercial drones made for foreign militaries.
Still, once a commercial drone makes it into Mesmer's library, it's unlikely that a future software update would help it overcome D13's solution. That's because Mesmer focuses on the radio signals, not the software.
"There is not a single drone that we haven't been able to crack," Hunter said. "We're working our way through the drone families."
The company plans to have the system on the market this month.