By Lisa Ferdinando
DoD News, Defense Media Activity
I squinted into the blue sky in search of the drone that was buzzing overhead.
The small craft sounded like a lawnmower and was hard to distinguish, from a distance, from a bird that just happened to be gliding by that day on the California coast.
There I was, with a handful of selected reporters, on the flightline at Naval Base Ventura County and Sea Range at Point Mugu covering Black Dart 2015, a Department of Defense-sponsored exercise to test counter-drone technologies.
It was amazing to see the various drones in person. Down one end of the flightline were the largest ones, or Group 5, including the MQ-9 Reaper; at the opposite end were the smallest ones, or Group 1, that included quadcopters.
Quadcopters, if they sound familiar to you, were in the news earlier this year because a wayward one landed on the White House grounds. While that quadcopter was operated by a government worker-hobbyist who lost control of it, imagine if someone with ill intent was operating an unmanned aircraft system — exactly the worry of defense officials.
Easy to operate and obtain, drones are rapidly increasing in sophistication and are relatively inexpensive. In addition, the small drones are hard to detect on radar. If I had a hard time identifying the drone from the bird during daylight, imagine how hard it would be to identify on radar, the Black Dart military officials pointed out.
A quick Internet search turns up a seemingly endless variety of drones, even microdrones that can fit in the palm of your hand. With a few clicks of the mouse, pretty much anyone can be the owner of a small, unmanned aircraft system.
They are a concern of local officials all the way up to federal authorities.
It was surprising to hear from the Black Dart project officer, Air Force Maj. Scott Gregg, that commercially available drones have similar performance and capabilities to some of the unmanned systems that are considered to be threats.
“Buy them at any hobby shop right now. You can buy them online and for less than $1,000; you can get a pretty state-of-the-art radio-controlled model aircraft that really has a lot of capability,” he said.
During the Black Dart media tour, we met with service members from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps. While I would have loved to have spent more time there, we only had an afternoon during the event that was otherwise off-limits to outsiders.
The live-fly, live-fire demonstration brought together government, industry and four military branches to assess and improve counter-UAS technologies, July 26 to Aug. 7.
Drones are not just a military or a civilian threat, Gregg said, “It’s a shared concern because they can be harmful to all of us, regardless of where we are.”
“Our allies are using them, our coalition partners are using them, but our adversaries are using them too,” he said.
Some of the quadcopters can carry up to 15 pounds of cargo and what someone could put on them is “only limited by imagination,” according to Gregg.
It’s not hard to sense the urgency in combating the threat of drones. Even just a small drone flown by a hobbyist has the potential to harm aircraft.
“If there is anything that the terrorists have shown, is that they’ll be innovative and use anything that they can at their disposal to do what they’re trying to do,” Gregg said.
Black Dart has the potential to combat that when it comes to drones. The exercise is a great example of our ongoing efforts to ensure UAS proliferation does not outpace our knowledge and understanding of them.