Olympic Games, Rugby World Cup… Drones, the unstoppable threat

The black scenario of specialists in the fight against drones looks like this: during a large public gathering – concert, sporting event or other -, a dozen drones at 1,000 euros each take off from an adjacent street, from the roof of a building or a hotel room. They fly autonomously following GPS coordinates. They are not remote controlled, so any jamming is ineffective. In less than two minutes, they arrive at their destination; each carries 1 or 2 kilos of flour, which is dropped a few tens of meters above the crowd. Thousands of people are trampled, causing countless casualties. Cost of the terrorist operation: a few tens of thousands of euros.

This is one of the characteristics of this type of threat as detailed by Thomas Pledger, an American army officer, author of an analysis entitled “The Role of Drones in Future Terrorist Attacks”, which recalls that the attack on the September 11 cost less than $650,000. A unique cost-effectiveness ratio in the history of terrorism. In France, this is called an “asymmetrical threat”: inexpensive to infected, but terribly expensive to counter.

The realism of the scenario mentioned above lies in its simplicity: you can easily find everything you need on the Net to modify a commercial drone so that it carries 1 or 2 kilos and frees itself from electronic geoprotections. prohibiting the overflight of certain sensitive areas. The war in Ukraine revealed the effectiveness of DIY drones – a video showing a commercial drone dropping a pinned grenade on a car is accompanied by a technical note explaining the techniques employed. And analysts believe that the Russian refinery in Novochakhtinsk was destroyed with a drone bought 7000 euros on AliExpress.

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These attacks seem primitive compared to what will be possible in the near future, between drones accelerating to 200 km / h in two seconds, tests of several dozen machines evolving autonomously in a forest, without even counting the progress software such as the recognition of objects or people based on open access artificial intelligence modules. Countering this threat is a complex task, involving the mastery of a multitude of technologies, some of which do not yet exist and others already seem obsolete.

Urgent deadlines

In France, the Ministries of the Armed Forces and the Interior are facing two critical deadlines: the Rugby World Cup scheduled for 2023 and the Olympic Games in 2024. Two giant events with huge crowds spread over large areas, such as for the opening ceremony of the Olympics which should stretch along the Seine. The Directorate General for Armaments (DGA) has taken up the problem by planning a consortium made up of the national military giant, Thales, and CS Group, a company of more modest size but operating on essential systems linked to security. inside and outside the country. Both have extensive experience in the fight against drones and have appointed a few crumbs to sharp SMEs. The contract is called Parade, a contraction of Modular Deployable Anti-Drone Protection.

Given the urgency, the call for tenders was inevitably expedited. For three weeks, the participants were invited to Toulon to present not smoky PowerPoints, but actually functional technologies. “It was a question of having a device that could be deployed by two people in two hours, with very precise identification capabilities,” explains Christophe Salomon, head of land and air systems at Thales.

A first sight, the amount of the contract sponsoring generous income: 350 million euros, but over a period of eleven years. By comparison, in 2022 alone, the United States spent $668 million on anti-drone research and development, plus $78 million on purchasing these technologies. A ratio of 1 to 20 that gives an idea of ​​the seriousness of the threat to the US Department of Defense. Furthermore, only the order for the first year of Parade is firm, the rest being only a forecast, a little as if the client – the DGA – did not want to look too far beyond the sporting deadlines of the second-years. More so, the first phase of Parry is only about providing six defense systems.

No lethal weapon against a well-organized drone attack

The technologies taken are multiple and are supposed to complement each other, which is all the more necessary since there is no lethal weapon against a well-organized drone attack. The most obvious is the jamming of communications between drones and their operators; problem, we explain at CS Group, it is necessary to jam on a wide spectrum of frequencies, so if a drone is detected around a stadium or a concert, all communications will be disrupted. The lasers? However spectacular and effective they are, they are complicated to implement, and their intervention may be late. “In addition, it takes them several seconds to fry the electronics of a drone, explains Christophe Salomon. We are working on so-called directed energy weapons, which operate on the same principle as radar, but with a very concentrated beam capable of to extinguish a dozen drones at a good distance.”

But, whatever the technique, the response time remains the Achilles heel, “because there is not much point in bringing down a drone that is already above a fault, explain the engineers of CS Group. The challenge is the detection of the threat as early as possible and the precise identification between an authorized drone and a hostile device, in a few seconds and without error”. CS Group is therefore working on systems comprising audio sensors – ultra-sensitive microphones – coupled with artificial intelligence algorithms capable of distinguishing, in the urban noise, the foam noise of a drone which has just taken off. Supported by a special camera, the drone can then be identified and destroyed by any means. The problem is that this type of acoustic device only works within a radius of 300 meters, which requires a large number of microphones and as many cameras to cover a sensitive area.

In fact, the fight against drones is a typical case for the use of fully automated weapons with detection, acquisition, identification and neutralization devices passing the baton, without human intervention. “Inevitably, you have to tend towards that, explains the leader of a European start-up. But that supposes a change of mentality to which no one is ready in France. Imagine the outcry if an automated system mistakenly destroys a civilian drone which falls on the crowd…” This specialist – he is not the only one – admits that by renouncing such systems, the whole system is deprived of a large part of its effectiveness.

No overview

The ten interviews conducted for this article leave a feeling of unease. The technologies are always described with verified accuracy, but they only solve parts of the problem, with no apparent overall vision. The fault seems rather to lie with the DGA, according to certain sources.

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At Thales, we limit ourselves to the strict limits of the contract. “We deliver a system which, when you press the button, is sure to work, the rest is not our problem”, sums up Christophe Salomon. In other words, the consortium provides its high-tech Lego pieces to the police and other forces, it is up to them to invent the life that goes with it… This prophylactic exemption from Thales sounds like the anticipation of a generalized deficiency with like argument: our system works, it’s just the whole thing that was poorly integrated. Specialists remind that no part of the world exists magic solutions. “We are in the prehistory of the fight against drones, note one of them. Eventually, it will take a lot more resources, that’s for sure. But it will take a disaster for there to be a hold of awareness.”


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