Friday, March 10, 2017

It’s Drone vs. Drone as Airspace Systems Takes Flight: Silicon Valley startup unveils mobile command center as market for defensive services heats up

The Wall Street Journal
March 9, 2017 7:30 a.m. ET

On a recent afternoon, a large white van parked outside The Battery, a private club for tech elites in San Francisco.

Passersby stared at the cumbersome vehicle on the busy city block, some snapping photos of the large antennas emerging from its trailer that suggested something out of a spy movie.

That wasn’t far off—the van acts as a new mobile command center for a Silicon Valley startup aiming to defend the skies against rogue drones. Airspace Systems Inc. wants to help federal agencies, sports stadiums, amusement parks and other businesses protect against drones that pose a threat.

After venture capitalists funneled millions into companies commercializing drones, a growing cadre senses opportunity in providing defensive services as well. In addition to Shasta Ventures-backed Airspace Systems, companies like Dedrone, D-Fend Solutions and DroneShield have arrived on the scene in recent years.

“There are probably just as many companies making counter-unmanned aircraft systems as there are making unmanned aircraft systems,” said Michael Blades, a senior industry analyst at research firm Frost & Sullivan.

One of the market leaders is Dedrone, which raised a $15 million Series B last month. Dedrone uses a combination of microphones, sensors and frequency scanners to detect drones, and then takes counter measures like catching them with nets or jamming their signals.

“Everybody who has a fence has a fence for reason, and the reason is to keep people out of his property,” said Dedrone Chief Executive Joerg Lamprecht. “And we believe that everyone who has a fence needs an aerial equivalent.”

The startup’s drones monitored the skies above several U.S. presidential debates last year, as well as this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Its customers include data centers, prisons, airports and nuclear power plants.

Airspace Chief Executive Jaz Banga, a serial entrepreneur, said the threat of rogue drones is on the rise.

He cited cases ranging from Islamic State’s increased use of drones to more mundane but intrusive domestic episodes. In Los Angeles, for examples, drones have recently been used by paparazzi to capture unauthorized images of celebrities.

Mr. Banga says counter measures are needed in cases of amateurs who don’t know how to pilot drones, drones that suffer mechanical failures and ones used by threatening or criminal actors.

Airspace uses machine vision to detect anomalous drones in the sky. Traditional air traffic-tracking technology like radar often isn’t effective to detect drones because they can be as small as some birds.

When an unwanted drone is detected, an Airspace drone is able to track and intercept it, shooting out a Kevlar-fiber net. Like a spider trapping a fly in its web, the Airspace drone snares the enemy drone and carries it away.

But like drones themselves, counter-drones are entering a highly regulated market.

Federal Aviation Administration rules prohibit capturing an aircraft from the sky. Many commercial customers and clients in local law enforcement have only relied on these vendors for “detect-and-alert” services.

Airspace’s Mr. Banga says the regulations were written with airplanes in mind, and his company’s approach of catching the drone in a net falls into a gray area because it doesn’t damage the drone.

“It’s undefined right now,” he said.

Other companies are avoiding regulatory challenges by focusing primarily on detection. A sports stadium may detect a drone in its airspace, follow its signal to find the pilot, and confront the pilot on the ground. When a prison security team detects a drone, officers can determine whether it has dropped a parcel and where it can be picked up. Celebrity clients may want to be notified of an unwanted drone’s presence so they can close their blinds.

“When you have to spend money on something that is a cost item, some people will be progressive, but most people are more likely to drag their feet on it,” said Bilal Zuberi, a partner at Lux Capital who has spoken with several counter-drone startups but not invested in any. “It’s very early-stage for these companies, both in terms of technology and business traction.”

It might take a major catastrophe involving a drone before commercial businesses take note, predicted Anthony Albanese, president of drone detection provider Gryphon Sensors LLC, a subsidiary of defense contractor SRC Inc.

Rob Coneybeer, a managing director at Shasta Ventures who invested in Airspace, said it’s still early days for the industry. That contributed to Airspace’s recent decision to make its command centers mobile.

“It’s an opportunity for these people to try this out and see how it works,” Mr. Coneybeer said.

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