Thermal Imaging and The Importance of Counter Drone Systems

December 02, 2020

The drone industry is booming with an estimated value of 22.5 billion USD in 2020 and potentially double by 2025[i]. Along with the growing number of drones comes the increased potential for their disruptive mishandling. Therefore, the importance of counter-drone systems and drone detection solutions, such as thermal imaging, is also on the rise.

The FAA receives more than 100 sighting reports each month.[ii] These sightings come from pilots, citizens, and law enforcement and have increased dramatically over the past two years. Drone incidents don’t just affect the aviation industry, but many aspects of society. The threat ranges from airports to critical infrastructure, stadiums, university campuses, government establishments, and more.

Drones can smuggle contraband over prison walls[i]. They disrupt firefighting operations, flying into restricted airspace over the fire crews’ efforts.[ii] They threaten sensitive sites, such as the drone strikes against oil facilities in Saudi Arabia in September 2019, which temporarily disrupted approximately half of that kingdom’s oil production capacity and demonstrated the substantial harm caused by the malicious use of drones.[iii]

Since 2019, the FBI has launched counter-drone missions at national sporting events, such as the Super Bowl LIV in Miami, the 2019 World Series, and the 2020 Rose Bowl Game, as well as at other major events that draw large crowds, like New York City’s famous New Year’s celebration. The FBI detected more than 200 drones “unlawfully flying in national security airspace restricted by the [FAA] at such events.”[i]

The fear is real. Terrorist groups could use drones to drop a bomb or spray a poisonous gas over large crowds at a public event. They can also serve as an effective means of reconnaissance for criminal activity, flying over bollards, checkpoints, and other security mechanisms.

Empty seats in an airport departure hall at sunset, color toned picture, travel and transportation concept.

Drone disruptions have also become notorious at several European airports in the past few years, causing thousands of canceled flights and billions of dollars in damage. Commercially acquired drones threaten airport operations due to limited knowledge of airspace safety regulations or deliberate action by drone operators.[i] Drones pose a severe risk to aircraft and can cause engine failure if they come in contact. Hence, airports shut down operations even at a possible sighting of a drone.[i]

“There is no silver bullet to help protect our infrastructure and our citizens from malicious or careless drone use,” said British Security Minister Brandon Lewis; “We must be able to crack down effectively on those who would use drones to cause harm or disruption.”[i] Law enforcement agencies must work out how to anticipate, prevent, detect, and respond use of drones by criminals, including terrorists. One of the key elements is a drone detection system – the first step in mitigating the drone threat.

In December 2018, repeated drone disruptions caused a 33-hour closure at Gatwick Airport, the UK’s second busiest airport, yielding an estimate of USD54 million in damage. The British Army used a cutting-edge Israeli anti-drone system, made by Rafael Defense Systems, to defeat the drones that wreaked havoc at Gatwick airport.[i] Based on radar and a thermal camera pivoting 360° to detect drones, the system honed in on a disrupting target and neutralized the drone.

Wendt et al. conclude in their 2020 study that the investment in a counter-drone system is justified in case of a prolonged shutdown. However, the research didn’t consider the cost of cabin crew and pilots’ relocation, insurance compensations, diverting aircraft to other airports, or the effect to other airports caused by aircraft not departing or passengers waiting to depart to the closed airport. Shutting down an airport has a global impact and unmeasurable financial costs, thus justifying the investment in an anti-drone and drone-detection system.

The Coronavirus pandemic has frozen much of the world’s aviation industry and grounded fleets. As a result, it has accelerated the use of autonomous flying drones in a humanitarian effort to beat the crisis. Drones have proved useful in delivering COVID-19 test samples and medications. When an autonomous drone delivers a parcel, it cuts down on operational costs by at least 70% compared to a van delivery. Future growth in drone deliveries is inevitable, and their disruptive force to the transportation industry needs to be a consideration.[ii]

Security Camera

As of October 2018, the US Congress approved a new federal law. The law gives federal agencies the authority to detect, identify, monitor, and track drones without prior consent, warn the operator of a drone, disrupt or seize control of a potentially threatening drone, and if necessary –  use reasonable force to damage or destroy a threatening drone.[i] But state and local law enforcement agencies still do not have permission to disrupt drones during flight because they are considered aircraft and thus are afforded the same protections as crewed aircraft. In the UK, the government has proposed expanding police powers to respond to illegal drone operations.

Still, these new rules primarily address permissible actions against the drone operator, not against the drone itself.[i]

Drones can be detected by the radio frequency communications between a drone and its controllers, by their acoustic signature, the heat they emit (thermal signature), or with visual recognition, enhanced by computer vision recognition strategies. Once the small unmanned aircraft is detected, a mitigation strategy can be implemented, such as Gatwick Airport’s use of Rafael’s “Drone Dome.”

Drone detection systems can locate a UAV within several miles using a high-tech radar and laser rangefinder; a thermal camera then locks on the target for visual confirmation and tracking. Once the system has a lock on the drone, it makes a “Soft Kill” using a radio frequency jammer to overload the drone with signals, taking command from the unknown operator and land the UAV safely. Alternatively, if the situation dictates a “Hard Kill” scenario, the system uses a high-powered laser, effectively melting them and rendering them inoperative.

A dual-channel 24/7 surveillance camera with a highly sensitive infrared detector, such as Opgal’s Accuracii XR thermal imaging system, can operate day and night and spot a drone from miles away. Pivoting on a 360° pan-tilt mechanism and equipped onboard analytics, the system performs Automatic Target Recognition (ATR) for Drone/Not a Drone identification. Since a single camera can only track a single target, it is up to an AI software or a human operator to deem which target is the riskiest; when choosing between multiple objects, then slew and cue the camera for visual confirmation and identification.

As drones gradually become a more prevalent means of running various operations – from environmental or industrial monitoring to infrastructure inspection, aerial surveys, transport and delivery, and so much more – they will fundamentally change public space. In a world where even pizza will be delivered by drones, one can expect some heavy air traffic filling up the sky. Drones will become as ubiquitous as pigeons, and we will have to procure the means to detect and differentiate between friend and foe and to neutralize potential threats.


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[7] Wendt, Philippe et al. “Estimating the costs for the airport operator and airlines of a drone-related shutdown: an application to Frankfurt international airport.” Journal of Transportation Security, 1–24. 8 Jul. 2020, doi:10.1007/s12198-020-00212-4







drone detection Thermal cameras Thermal Imaging