As drones get cheaper to buy and easier to use, they’re also going to get more and more annoying. Back when they were expensive and complicated and fragile and having one was a big deal, people would be careful with them, and flying them would be enough of an event that you wouldn’t be thinking about all the ways in which it’s possible to use drones to do things that are (at best) obnoxious or (slightly worse) illegal or (way worse) recklessly dangerous.
For most people on the ground, there’s not a lot that we can do about an unwanted drone buzzing around overhead, especially if it’s out of shotgun range and you don’t have a military-grade laser handy. The solution to this is obvious and inevitable: intercept drones that seek out and bring down other drones.
A group of California drone developers has recently announced they’re creating a drone called Rapere that is optimized for one single purpose: finding nearby drones and causing them to crash. When you see a drone that you want, uh, taken care of, simply press the “GO” button on the Rapere. It’ll launch itself, visually locate any other drone within range, and then fly up and hover above that drone while dangling a bit of wire beneath itself. The wire gets all tangled up on the other drone’s rotors, causing it to crash (maybe). Rapere then returns to base, and you can smugly salvage a nice GoPro or whatever from the pile of wreckage.
Right off the bat, we should point out that Rapere doesn’t exist yet, so the scenario described above is what its creators hope to accomplish. What they’ve shown so far is a website with vague details and some crude graphics. And while they say their drone works “in the lab,” they acknowledged that it still has a “long way to go before it goes commercial.” We asked them for some proof-of-concept videos but haven’t heard back.
Assuming Rapere is (or is going to be) a real thing, we’ve got two questions, the first of which is the straightforward one: would this even work? According to their website, here’s how Rapere would work:
Lots of (12) high framerate (90 fps) moderately low res cameras (VGA) pointing in every direction, with structure from motion being used to guide the drone to it's target - hovering above the free floating target drone. Fortunately for us detecting a free floating object which is well illuminated and far from any other visible object is easy. We can burn lots of watts on the onboard computer, because of the short flight time. This is difficult on normal UAS.
Their strategy is to sacrifice endurance for speed, agility, and the ability to do onboard image processing in real time. And they claim that it would be very hard for the target drone to get away:
If someone had a top of the line drone, and had practice evading our drone, they could evade it for a while. We know, we've been trying. But not for long, as the thing is quite persistent and you can't even make a mistake for half a second.
The second question, and perhaps the more relevant one, is this: assuming the Rapere drone works as advertised, is it even legal to use? The company behind Rapere argues that the only time you’d use it is when someone else is doing something illegal or dangerous with a drone to begin with. That’s a reasonable point, but that in of itself doesn’t necessarily make it legal to just up and wreck someone else’s robot. Rapere certainly won’t be cheap; it’s not supposed to be a toy, but a professional tool, and it’s possible that you won’t even be able to buy one without providing “some sort of proof of legitimate use, such as public safety officials, event organizers, private security firms, etc.” Again, though, restricting Rapere’s use doesn’t answer the question of whether it’s legal, since the upshot of using Rapere to destroy a drone is, as far as I can tell, fundamentally the same as just shooting that same drone with a shotgun. We may just have to wait and see if Rapere (or a similar drone) becomes a real product, and if so, what happens the first time someone uses one.
Of course, the next inevitability is going to be a bodyguard drone that’s designed to intercept anti-drone drones before they can mess with your drone. I don’t know exactly how this is going to play out, but I do know that it will be wicked fun to watch when it does.