Can drones be blinded by laser pointers?

Location: / Message: "Laser pointers become anti-drone weapons"

Created on: May 6, 2013 - 2:55 pm

The new generation of freely available powerful laser pointers burn holes through thick plastic and can crash smaller drones. It's illegal, but unfortunately it's also easy.

A permanent "eye in the sky" is a "great idea" for the next marathon, said Ed Davies, the Boston police chief after the bombings in the finish area of ​​the event.

Davies is not alone in this view. Since June 2012, more and more authorities, from civil protection to law enforcement, have been registering test projects for the use of drones with the US aviation authority. Legislative initiatives are in progress in 37 of the 52 states to create the legal basis for the deployment of unmanned small aircraft in civil airspace.

In addition, there is a rapidly growing number of do-it-yourself enthusiasts, and more and more companies are offering kits for small helicopters with four or eight rotors. And there is also a growing number of commercial providers who are upgrading conventional model planes with cheap Arduino chipsets, GPS and all kinds of sensors to become robotic planes.

(CC BY 2.0) quadrocopter

Drones, the "next big thing"

On a conservative basis, at least 100,000 such aircraft must already be in private hands in the USA. Quite a few of the enthusiasts already have business plans, because private drones have long been considered the "next big thing" in the USA, both as gadgets in the consumer sector and in the service sector.

A turnover of 82 billion euros is forecast in the "unmanned aviation" sector for the period from 2015 to 2025, provided that parts of the civil airspace are released for drones by then.

In such a pioneering and startup atmosphere, security naturally plays a subordinate role. Safety is only at the center of the discussion in connection with the compatibility of drones with the safety rules of civil aviation.


In the EU countries too, the arms industry is pushing for unmanned aircraft to be allowed to monitor external borders, during major events and for commercial purposes. In Germany, the civil aviation law was amended in 2011 to allow a test operation with drones, in Austria they are still waiting.

Since all air traffic is still based on analog voice radio, communication between air traffic controllers and digital robotic pilots is still a largely unresolved problem. Probably the most prominent critic of the planned approval of drones in civil airspace is Eric Schmidt, the Chairman of Google (see below).

It is not at all discussed, however, that these private and police slow and low-flyers are easily attackable from the ground, all three basic components necessary for this are already available in abundance and cheaply. The combination of the three technologies described is of course illegal and can be extremely dangerous.

At the moment one is endangering small quad or octocopters, which are not legally "unmanned aerial vehicles" but model pilots and, depending on the country, are allowed to fly up to 150 meters high. Military drones are unimpressed with such primitive attacks. The real danger is that drones that meet military safety standards cost many times more than that of a non-hardened drone.

So far, however, all US governments have always set the hurdles particularly low when a new technology is about to make a breakthrough. It can therefore be assumed that in this regard 2015 will be launched with far too low standards in the US civil airspace.

The components

It starts with an old, slightly modified CB radio to paralyze the manual control of the drones by their "pilots" from a distance. In addition, there are illegal GPS jammers that have been sold in enormous numbers for years and are used in the truck transport industry and by car thieves.

With this primitive set-up, both manual control of the drones and GPS navigation can be paralyzed.

The largest DIY drone community is led by former Wired editor Chris Anderson. Anderson has given up his journalistic job and is now CEO of a civil drone startup.

In addition to these two waste products from the age of mobility and communication, there is also the good old "laser pointer". The former pointing aid for lecturers has meanwhile grown into a real laser weapon. As with drones, there is no shortage of technology enthusiasts who build "Ray Guns" with more than two watts of power from freely available components.

When the PowerPoint slide is on fire

There are now a few companies in the USA that are selling such fancy blue lasers with one watt of power for free for less than $ 300. In military terms, this is the third component of a fairly efficient air defense system for fighting low-flying, uncured drones in urban areas.

Using such a "ray gun" as a laser pointer in a lecture hall would cause the screen to burn down immediately; a pan through the audience would at least result in serious eye damage to those directly affected. How dangerous these lasers are, which can cut thick plastic at close range, is shown by the fact that just seasoned hardware hackers warn against frivolous use.

Lasers against drones in the military

The US military has meanwhile developed powerful laser cannons for defense against guided missiles ready for series production. Attacking single-use drones - guided weapons are nothing else - are hit with an extremely powerful, pulsed laser at the speed of light and caused to explode by heat.

The first system to defend against guided missiles by means of bundled light pulses will be used on board the destroyer "USS Ponce" in the Persian Gulf at the beginning of 2014.

With laser weapons in private hands, of course, such spectacular kills cannot be achieved, but a crash of a small to medium-sized drone - whether privately owned or operated by the police - they can always bring about. This is the crux of the matter when two conflicting military technologies - unmanned airplanes and powerful lasers - arrive in civil society at the same time.

Blowing out sensors

The most important sensors in these drones, video camera lenses, laser-based altimeters, etc., work with light just like the "ray guns". But when extremely bundled light alias laser hits the open optics of a video camera, behind which light amplification modules work and extremely sensitive electronics calculate the images, then the light will be blown out of this camera forever. The same goes for all other laser-based sensors that have to "look" downwards, such as those for ground clearance measurement.

wicked lasers

Wickedlaser's 1.4 watt blue top hazard class IV laser is available over the counter for $ 299. You can already find do-it-yourself lasers that provide two and more watts on the websites of laser hobbyists. Slightly smaller laser pointers are also freely available in Austria.

GPS jammer

With the increasingly seamless monitoring of truck transports, more and more long-distance drivers have acquired GPS jamming devices, which are available in numerous web shops for less than 50 dollars.

These illegal devices are used systematically when the transport company itself wants to prevent unregistered journeys or abbreviations via illegal routes from being documented in the fleet management. In addition, these "GPS jammers" are routinely used in the upper segment of commercial car theft to prevent a stolen vehicle from transmitting its position.

So "GPS glitches" are far more common than you might think, and are available for $ 50 all over the web. This is the next military technology, because disrupting opposing communications has always been in the domain of the military.

Much more complex than simply paralyzing the control systems, but it is also possible to feed the drone with incorrect GPS data via a corresponding transmitter. Taking over manual control of the drone via a modified CB radio and hijacking a drone is again quite easy once you know the commands.

Five times the GPS jamming power

A GPS jammer gets by with a makeshift antenna in the vehicle interior to paralyze the reception of GPS signals on board. However, if you connect a freely available directional antenna for the GPS area or you can easily build it yourself (twice illegally), then the power actually radiated increases fivefold.

At an angle of 45 degrees around the "firing direction" of the antenna, every GPS receiver is paralyzed because a directed interference signal from a few hundred meters away is stronger than the GPS signals from 300 kilometers that a satellite emits. The collateral damage is that, from car navigation to the synchronization of cell phone masts, production systems, a myriad of completely different GPS-controlled systems in the area are temporarily "blinded".

Impossible to maneuver

A slightly modified, old CB radio with an appropriately tuned antenna is then sufficient to blow away the manual control commands of the weak control console of the "drone pilots".

The control channels for model airplanes as for most current drones are located in the upper shortwave range right next to the CB frequencies. This makes the drone incapable of maneuvering and an easy target for a "Ray Gun" shooter.

Eric Schmidt, drone critic

How far the drones have already penetrated civil society is shown by the fact that a "Drone Journalism Lab" has already been set up at the College for Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Nebraska.

Probably the most prominent critic of the imminent use of drones in civil society and the most vocal caller for state regulation of private drone flying is Eric Schmidt of all people. Since the beginning of the year, the chairman of the world's largest collector of personal data, Google, has been warning against violations of privacy and the militarization of society through such an upgrade with war equipment.

Although Schmidt's position here coincides with that of civil rights activists such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the motives are likely to differ considerably. Celebrities like Schmidt are of course the first target of paparazzi, who have a powerful, new instrument with the light fliers.

On the other hand, Schmidt, together with the two Google founders Larry Page and Sergei Brin, owns one of the world's largest privately owned aircraft parks. Schmidt himself prefers to pilot a chic Gulfstream jet like the one used by the Saudi royal family.

cc: wbaiv

Pilots and drone builders

Not only the drone hobbyists have a pronounced emotional access to this type of aircraft, but also pilots. Their approach is of course diametrically opposed to that of the hobbyist, namely, it is abysmal contempt for flying toys that can be very dangerous for "real" pilots when approaching. When "war of the drones" is played with strong lasers near the earth, even die-hard economic liberals like Schmidt become advocates of state regulation.

With bans on lasers, which have become an indispensable part of many branches of industry, it will be extremely difficult. This is especially true in the United States, where some states even allow preschoolers to use live firearms under supervision.

What makes military drones different

Military drone systems, which are, however, many times more expensive, cannot be dealt with at all with such primitive means - as described above. They are equipped with additional sensors that search the ground for dangerous signals or light sources and switch off endangered sensors in between.

Military GPS is completely resistant to such interference, the manual control of the drones takes place via encrypted radio channels, which are just as impossible to attack. There are also other navigation and fallback routines including radar sensors and corresponding anti-collision programs to avoid obstacles.

At least these conditions would have to be met in order for a drone to be found to be basically "airworthy" or suitable for civil flight space.