A project that started out in May as an Indiegogo lark to build an open-source drone-detecting device, mostly intended for paranoid homeowners, has turned into a more serious business for the two engineers behind the idea.
With the growing popularity of hobbyist and commercial-grade drones, privacy and security are becoming much more than an abstract concern for a wide-range of interests. In August, Tina Turner's wedding was photographed by a drone helmed by paparazzi. In September, activists landed a drone on the dais of a campaign event for German chancellor Angela Merkel. Just last week, U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein told what she called a cautionary tale of spotting a drone peeking in her window at home. Many believe it's only a matter of time before these kinds of simple drones are engaged for corporate espionage—say, taking photos or landing on a roof and hacking into a Wi-Fi network—or even a physical attack.
This is what has security companies interested in talking to Brian Hearing, the co-inventor of a small portable or mountable box that listens for the noise of drones up above and sounds an alert if one is coming close. The device, called Drone Shield, analyzes noise picked up on its microphone and identifies the characteristic acoustic signatures of different kinds of drones. Sometimes these are sounds a person could hear with their ear, but likely people aren’t listening for them.
"The goal is to give you enough warning time to either go inside and shut your blinds ... or for commercial uses, it’s to call the cops or alert your security," Hearing says.
Drone Shield has sold about 130 devices for $100, and recently put out a $59 portable "Hunter's edition," but is now hoping to ramp up from its basement manufacturing to a bigger operation. "Our longer-term plan is to improve the product so it’s ready for enterprise sales; turn some of our pilot installations into long-term customers, and expand overseas," says Hearing. "We’re envisioning installing one of our devices every place you have a security camera."
One drone shield device is in use at the fence line of a Pennsylvania hunting lodge that has had a run-in with an expensive drone sent in by the animal activist group SHARK, which is apparently funded by the iconic game show host Bob Barker (Hunters shot down the drone and now it is sitting in a tree. The two groups are in a tense standoff over what happens now, says Hearing). Another trial with a small security company detected two drones at the recent Rose Bowl parade—one from ESPN and another private one of unknown origin.
The device isn’t sensitive enough to detect military-grade drones high overhead, but Hearing says it could catch hobbyist devices and, possibly with the help of more expensive and sensitive microphones, commercial drones as well. (One thing that helps is that UAVs large enough to carry a payload or case large facilities tend to make more noise.) Another company has tried to detect radio frequency communications of UAVs with a person on the ground, but these signals are easy to mask and as drones grow more autonomous, they will be fewer. "Acoustics are good because it’s very difficult to hide them. They sound really unique," says Hearing. "There’s really not much else out there that sounds like it—it can tune out leaf blowers, weed whackers, and hair dryers."
Right now, Hearing and his co-founder John Franklin, who have both spent most of their careers working in the defense and intelligence industry, are improving the product to use higher-quality hardware and microphones and sell at a higher price than $100. They just raised a seed round of investment. The business is still quite small today, though the devices are in 16 countries. "Once a couple of stars get one, everyone in Southern California is going to want one."