Sales of consumer and commercial flying drones picked up speed in 2016, but if the incessant buzzing of unmanned aerial vehicles is enough to make you want to fight back with high or low technological countermeasures, a recent case in the United States suggests acting on drone-busting desires can carry hidden costs.
According to consumer market research company NPD Group, drone sales in the U.S. soared 224 per cent to $200-million (U.S.) in the 12 months before April, 2016. The final six months of that period saw sales grow by four times the year before. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration estimates that 2.5 million commercial and consumer drones will be sold in this year, and projects that by 2020 more than seven million units a year will be flocking to more and more communities.
Drone makers DJI and Parrot are one and two in market share, selling high-end devices with an average selling price of $550, according to NPD. Just last week, one of China's fastest-growing tech companies, cellphone manufacturer Xiaomi, unveiled a more affordable sub-$500 drone with a range of two kilometres and a video camera capable of 4K resolution. All of which suggests the trajectory of drone adoption means the friction between drone lovers and haters can only increase.
As powerful drones have populated more and more public space in the past two years, stories of the counter-reaction have also popped up on online. People fighting back against drones have used shotguns, chucked spears, unleashed their own drones equipped with net-firing cannons and there's even a program in the Netherlands that has police training bald eagles to attack unwanted quadcopters. But there is also a category of devices that promise to use the radio waves that control drones against them.
A quick search of Google will find several companies claiming to sell devices that can block the control signals of drones, which can force an unwanted quadcopter to crash or return to its point of origin depending on the manufacturer. However, interfering with these radio signals is illegal in Canada and the U.S. (and many other jurisdictions), not least because jammers can block cellular phone signals that emergency responders rely on as well.
Last week, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) fined a Florida man $48,000 for using a cellphone-signal-jamming device over a period of two years on his daily commute to work. More unusually, it also issued a $34.9-million fine against CTS Technology, a Chinese manufacturer that made, marketed and shipped the device.
In Canada, the Radio Communications Act empowers the federal government to issue similar fines. "The manufacture, importation, distribution, lease, offering for sale or sale of jammers within Canada is prohibited under section 4(4) of the Act," Hans Parmar, a spokesperson for Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (formerly Industry Canada) wrote in an e-mail. In Canada, individuals might face a $25,000 (Canadian) or $50,000 fine for a first or second offence, while corporations trafficking in the prohibited gear face $10-million or $15-million fines.
The popularity of drones and their potential for havoc has put them in the crosshairs of the aviation industry and also civil authorities such as firefighters. A pair of California lawmakers introduced legislation in 2015 that sought to create authority for forest firefighters to use jamming technology against drones, which they described as a dangerous nuisance to deal with during an emergency (the bill passed the state Senate on May 5). A non-profit research group in Ohio called Batelle showed off a rifle-style directional radio blaster designed to down drones. At the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Airbus Defense and Space Inc. unveiled a counter unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) system that could spot drones at a range of five to 10 kilometres and disable them. "All over the world, incidents with universally available small drones have revealed a security gap with regards to critical installations such as factories, airports or nuclear plants," said Thomas Muller, head of Electronics and Border Security at Airbus Defence and Space.
As yet, all such systems would still be illegal in Canada.
CTS sells a variety of jammers, including those that block drones, and will ship them almost anywhere. The Globe and Mail was unable to contact CTS to see if they would ship to Canada, but a Taiwan company called R&R Group International also sells jammers of all types on its website Jammers4U.com and it makes no bones about a willingness to violate federal law to sell a jammer here.
We e-mailed an inquiry about a $1,600 (U.S.) jamming device that claimed a 600-metre drone-free range, and heard back from a representative calling himself Boban Radeta. "Every week we ship units to Canada and we ship this model before," he wrote, promising he could sell us such a device with this warning: "We hope that you know that Jammers are not allowed in Canada, therefore we can sale [sic] and ship to you this device only declared as 'wireless mimo router.'" Making a false declaration to the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency is also a crime and can be federally prosecuted.
Despite his claims, public reports of such devices being used are rare. In 2009, a Vancouver Island high-school principal made news when he admitted to deploying a cellphone signal jammer purchased from a Chinese company. The RCMP acquired an exemption to use the technology at the 2008 Francophonie Summit in Quebec City, and there are reports the gear was also used at the 2010 G8/G20 Summit in Toronto. So-called Stingrays or IMSI catchers used by law enforcement can also block signals in ways that would violate the Radio Communications Act, and reporting by The Globe and Mail's Colin Freeze has shown that the RCMP, Toronto Police Service and Corrections Canada officials have employed them anyway.
So far, R&R Group and others seem to have been able to sell consumer-grade jamming devices with impunity in Canada. According to Mr. Parmar: "The enforcement action for jammer-related activities conducted in Canada varies from case to case, depending on circumstances. No enforcement actions have been taken against jammer manufacturers under the Radio Communication Act to date."