In July 2019, multiple drones were reportedly used to swarm Navy destroyers off the coast of California. The mysterious drones, around six in total, appeared over the course of several nights, flashing lights and performing “brazen maneuvers” close to the warships. They flew at speeds of 16 knots, and stayed aloft for upward of 90 minutes, longer than commercially available drones.
It’s not known where they originated from. News of the incident was only made public in March 2021, following a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request from The Drive, which rested in the disclosure of deck logs from the ships involved in the incident.
Troublesome drones are not a new phenomenon. In one highly publicized incident a couple of years ago, unauthorized drones were spotted near London’s Gatwick Airport, a major hub that approximately 60,000 people fly out of each day during normal, non-COVID times. Concerned about the possibility of a drone colliding with an aircraft, authorities made the call to ground all aircraft for 36 hours, affecting 1,000 flights and costing an estimated $70 million.
According to Leigh Madden, CEO of Los Angeles-based startup Epirus, drones are fast becoming a “staple of 21st-century warfare.” U.S. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, who heads up the nation’s Central Command, has branded them the “most concerning tactical development” since the widespread rise of IEDs, or improvised explosive devices. As with IEDs, the use of drones represents an example of asymmetric warfare, in which smaller, less well-equipped insurgents can challenge much larger powers. Like a couple of drones shutting down an international airport. Or several drones striking fear into the crew of a 510-foot Navy destroyer.
To address this growing problem, Epirus, which builds modern defense systems to address 21st-century threats, has created Leonidas, a portable, powerful microwave energy weapon that can be used to disable a swarm of drones simultaneously or knock out individual drones within a group with extremely high precision. It works by overloading the electronics on board a drone, causing it to instantly fall out of the sky. It is referred to as a Counter-UAS — or Counter Unmanned Aerial Systems — tool.
“Leonidas is a first-of-its-kind Counter-UAS system that uses solid-state, software-defined high-power microwave (HPM) to disable electronic targets, delivering unparalleled control and safety to operators,” Madden told Digital Trends. “Digital beamforming capabilities enable pinpoint accuracy so that operators can disable enemy threats, [without disrupting anything] else. Leonidas utilizes solid-state Gallium Nitride power amplifiers to give the system deep magazines and rapid firing rates, while dramatically reducing size and weight.”
The energy weapon solution can be mounted on a truck, ship, or a variety of other vehicles or platforms, depending on what is required by the customer. The beam it fires out can be narrowed or widened based on the specifications of the target. Want to instantly stop a swarm of approaching drones? Widen the beam. Looking for an energy weapon sniper rifle that can hit just one drone out of a group? Narrow it down to a needle-like point. It’s also fast. The directed energy weapon produces a very high rate of fire, equivalent to multiple rounds per second. This is crucial because, like stormtroopers in Star Wars, the threat of drone swarms is less about the indestructibility of any single one than their ability to potentially overwhelm through strength of numbers.
In February, Epirus carried out a demonstration using a prototype version of its energy weapon for attendees from the Department of Defense and intelligence community. During the test, it successfully disabled 66 out of 66 drones. Having validated its approach, a field-ready version is now being prepped to be used operationally by the Defense Department later in 2021. The company is also reportedly working on a smaller mobile version for users who are on foot.
Unsurprisingly, Epirus, which was founded in 2018, isn’t the first stab the engineering world has taken at the potential threat of malicious drone swarms. “There are a variety of other technologies that are trying to address the C-UAS threat, from jamming to lasers, and even nets,” Madden acknowledged.
Drone jammers, such as the DroneGun, which resembles a bazooka and was created by Australian company DroneShield, works by blocking radio communication between the drone and its operator, stopping the UAV from receiving direct instructions. Another approach, the Advanced Test High Energy Asset (ATHENA) system developed by defense giant Lockheed Martin, blasts unwanted drones out of the sky with a powerful laser weapon. Yet another, the DroneCatcher, is an anti-drone drone that locks onto enemy UAVs in midair and ensnares them in a net from up to 20 meters away. (You can check out alternative drone-dispatching methods in our roundup of anti-drone technology.)
As innovative as many of these solutions are, Madden is convinced that Epirus’ approach has some distinct advantages. “All these more traditional, kinetic approaches to Counter-UAS have significant downsides, which is why Epirus has taken an entirely different, more agile and innovative approach with our C-UAS system,” he said.
Chief among these are the smaller size and increased power compared to certain competing technologies, as well as the beamforming capabilities that grant it additional accuracy. “Lasers, for example, must dwell on a specific target until the laser can burn through the target,” he said. “Our systems create a forcefield effect that quickly disables any threats that permeate it, allowing for greater accuracy and the ability to disable multiple targets simultaneously. Our systems can also power up and down in a matter of minutes. [That’s] another differentiator from traditional vacuum-tube HPM systems, which can take hours to reach sufficient power levels.”
The threat of drone swarms isn’t going away any time soon. China, for instance, is reportedly investigating swarms of suicide drones. But thanks to the likes of Epirus, there are now ways of fighting back.