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At This Drone Competition, To Win Is To Destroy

Popular Mechanics logo Popular Mechanics 2/13/2018 David Hambling

Step aside, drone racing. Here comes the "anti-drone race."

DroneClash, which takes place in the Netherlands tomorrow, challenges its players to destroy the opponent's drone and knock it out of the sky. While the event certainly looks entertaining, it's not just aimless destruction. The competition also hopes to advance anti-drone technology.

Delft University of Technology’s Micro Air Vehicle Lab, previously known for pioneering work in flapping-wing drones, came up with the event. The people behind DroneClash believe for drones to be truly safe, we must have a way to stop the inevitable rogue operators.

“Because there is not yet a perfect way of trapping, catching, and bringing down drones safely, we set up this competition,” Bart Remes, MAVLab project manager, told Popular Mechanics. “DroneClash will generate new ideas in order to encourage this process.”

The Rules Are There Are No Rules

The event includes eight teams in total. DroneClash will take place over two rounds, each involving four teams. The drones meet in the First Battle Area, where they attempt to take out as many of the competition as possible. Survivors then fly through the "Hallway of Doom, Death and Destruction," trying to avoid a variety of counter-drone weapons.

Finally, they reach the Palace of the Four Queens. Each team has a "Queen" drone they must defend while destroying the other Queens. The winning team goes on to the next round.

Illustration of the battle map. © DroneClash Illustration of the battle map.

Other drone competitions have a set of rules governing the size, weight, and power of the robot gladiators. Not DroneClash. The drones themselves may be multicopters, fixed wing, flapping wing, or any other type. The organizers are not even dictating how many drones a team can fly at a time.

“The arena will be indoors, and if you can navigate inside this space then everything is possible,” says Remes. “Brilliant minds will find ways of switching between multiple drones. We want the clever community to come up with cool ideas like drone swarms.”

Building a Battle Drone

The Wand works on its battle drone from DroneClash in February 2018. © The Wand The Wand works on its battle drone from DroneClash in February 2018.

Daniel Vernis leads one DroneClash team called “The Wand.” Some members of the team, like Vernis, have development experience working with the Internet of Things. But each person in the five-member team has a different role, whether that's developing hardware, software, or testing drones.

“We started with a Parrot Bebop2 base,” Vernis told Popular Mechanics. “And we are slowly replacing hardware with home-printed and other lower cost alternative parts.”

Daniel suspects most teams will target propellers as they are drones’ most vulnerable feature. That may lead to a lot of shrouded or protected rotors, but the biggest design challenge will still be giving these gladiator drones enough power.

Because the drone needs to have a high level of intelligence, the on-board processing demands a lot of power. While adding new cameras and other sensors, the team removed non-essential components from the drone to reduce the energy demand from other systems.

a cluttered desk: At This Drone Competition, To Win Is To Destroy © The Wand At This Drone Competition, To Win Is To Destroy

“A lot of functionality we just don’t need,” says Vernis, naming things like wind-balancing systems in an indoor arena.

Vernis can't give away too much about the team’s plans, but they will field a mix of "attacker" and "defender" drones. Both designs will be highly autonomous with little need to refer to the "satellite" drone relaying communications to the human controllers.

Practice Safe Drone Killing

a sunset in the background: At This Drone Competition, To Win Is To Destroy © DroneClash At This Drone Competition, To Win Is To Destroy

Although Remes implemented lax criteria to encourage creative battle drones, safety remains the only exception. “The only real rule is that they have to make a good safety case and persuade an independent jury that it is safe,” he says.

This lone restriction rules out the more extreme forms of weaponry, like machine guns and rocket launchers. It is also a realistic reflection of the restrictions on counter-drone systems in a civilian environment. If you’re protecting an airport or a football stadium, you have to avoid endangering innocent people and aircraft.

Nets are widely considered the safest way of bringing down a drone carrying explosives or other lethal payloads. For aerial combat the Japanese police have demonstrated a drone which nets unmanned intruders, as have Michigan Tech and French company Malou. The Tart S6 Kill bot, developed for the Air Force Research Laboratory, is armed with a paintball gun firing net projectiles.

Of course, if they are expecting nets wielded by opposing drones - or fired at them in the Hallway of Doom - teams may develop drones with net-resistant rotor blades shrouded by wire mesh. Designs could also borrow ideas like the ducted fans inside the Honeywell T-Hawk. They might even equip drones with net-cutters, like the Net Penetration Equipment developed for underwater drones.

In videos uploaded before the competition, the Decepti Drone team seem to have some kind of dart gun while Team FBC2T's video shows an entangling device, but these may be fakes to put the opposition off the scent.

But there are other non-lethal ways to stop drones dead in their tracks. The U.S. military used DroneDefender to protect against ISIS’ grenade-dropping drones in Iraq, and Russian-backed rebels use jammers to stop Ukraine's growing arsenal of tactical drones. DroneClash participants will likely build jam-resistant drones, or ones autonomous enough to fight on even if communication is interrupted.

You cannot rely totally on either nets or jammers, so expect to see new and creative ideas for drone armament, with each squadron sporting a variety of BattleBots-type weaponry. Paintballs might be good for blinding camera lenses, or bringing down drones without harming bystanders. Grasping claws, like those on the Japanese ProDrone, could drag enemy drones out of the air like the trained eagles used by the Dutch police and the French military.

Remes says a DroneClash Expo will be held at the same time for developers to exhibit their work and share ideas. The hope is that DroneClash will become a continuous process, with an event held every year.

The number of drones out there are rising fast, with more than 770,000 registered in the U.S. in the last 15 months. Inevitably, some of them will be used maliciously, and Remes says police and security teams want an easy, low-cost piece of anti-drone kit easily stashed in the back of a squad car.

DroneClash could bring that sort of technology a little closer to reality.

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