Under a cloudy sky above Pula, Croatia, on April 21, drones took flight like high-tech clay pigeons. The quadcopters, launched against a coastal backdrop, were testing tools for US soldiers, hobbyist types of the kind that soldiers can now expect to encounter on battlefields. Learning to defeat these drones, and using specific tools for the task, was one goal of Exercise Shield, an air defense and electronic warfare exercise that ran from April 19 through April 21. As the drones flew, soldiers pointed blocky gun-shaped tools into the air, and sent the quadcopters back to the ground.
The tool used at Exercise Shield is the Dronebuster 3B, made by Flex Force. It comes in a tan-beige plastic reminiscent of computers from the early 1990s, with the pistol grip transforming it from an electronic novelty to an especially curious weapon.
“The Dronebuster Block 3, and Dronebuster Block 3B were designed to interrupt the control of the drone by overwhelming the control frequency,” reads the description from Flex Force. “This causes the drone to either stop and hover, or return to the operator, depending on the model of drone. The drone operator has no control of the drone while the command link is being overwhelmed with RF [Radio Frequency] energy.”
In other words, the gun can jam the drone to uselessness over radio frequency channels. Also, Dronebusters can overwhelm Global Navigation Satellite Systems, like GPS, though there are several others. That is important, as one of the main ways hobbyist drones can mitigate loss of control is by navigating to known home coordinates by GPS.
Hand-held drone jammers are relatively new for militaries, with many developed over the 2010s and the 2020s. They are one of the more straightforward attempts to meet the evolving threats on modern battlefields brought about by the abundance of cheap commercial drones in the hands of everyone from professional militaries to insurgent forces. Scouting and bombing aircraft used to at least be large enough to contain a pilot, making them a big target for missiles or guns, but small drones are orders of magnitude cheaper. Finding and stopping them means using everything from high powered microwaves to lasers to, like the Dronebusters, handheld jammers.
In June 2016, Popular Science reported on an exercise undertaken at West Point, where the Army Cyber Institute anticipated the coming preponderance of drones in war, and found a way to train cadets in their use and defeat. These cadets, all future officer candidates at the Army’s foremost military officer training school, traditionally have to engage in an “urban assault,” where a platoon of 40 or so cadets attack a compound defended by a squad of 10 or so underclassmen.
This “urban” area was a half-dozen cinder block buildings in the woods in New York, and for the drone part of the exercise, the defenders (with an instructor operating the controls) would fly a commercial Parrot drone as a scout, letting them call in simulated artillery on their mock enemies. To stop it, the assaulting platoon could employ a specially set up jammer rifle, configured to knock out that specific Parrot drone.
While the 2016 West Point scenario involved a jammer set up to specifically defeat the drone fielded, the lessons are ones being applied broadly today. A small drone, like the Parrot or many others that can be bought off the shelf, is enough to direct artillery fire, to spy on troop movements, and to make life dangerous unless it is defeated. For soldiers on the ground, shooting it with bullets could be an option, but the drone overhead can see the bright flashes of a rifle muzzle, especially at night, revealing soldiers hoping to stay hidden. Taking out the drone with jamming, instead, makes it useless to the drone operators.
Ukraine has seen drones used at war since the start of the Donbas war in 2014, with quadcopters even used to drop bombs on trenches. Since the February 2022 invasion by Russia, what is really new is the scale of these drones used, with one British think tank estimating that as many as tens of thousands of commercial drones are lost in combat a month. While some losses are simply wear and tear or battery burn out, for people fighting below, stopping a drone as soon as it is found overhead can mean life or death. To that end, militaries will keep fielding and testing jammers soldiers can bring with them into combat. Especially ones that come in a familiar, gun-shaped package.