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13 July 2017

NASA’s drone killer does not play around

NASA's got a way to stop drones in mid-flight.
NASA’s got a way to stop drones in mid-flight.

Image: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Drones let us do cool things like take neat pictures from overhead views and pretend to be a pilot. But they’ve also been used for more nefarious purposes, like helping prisoners escape and spying on people.

NASA isn’t one to mess around when it comes to security, and their Safeguard technology is clear proof of that. It can paralyze unmanned drones at a moment’s notice if they become a threat.

The Langley Research Center has been working on this idea for a while now but, until recently, it was just that: an idea. The technology finally passed NASA’s software compliance process, and it looks really effective. Now, the space explorer can start running it through the gamut of endless testing. 

The technique being used is called geofencing, which is pretty self explanatory. NASA’s software system — the aforementioned Safeguard — uses an invisible fence around secure geographical locations. If drones fly into the zones, they go down.

But it’s not an “everyone must go” system. NASA is fully aware that mistakes happen. This is why there are two zones leading up to the no-fly zones — not just one.

First, there is the “containment boundary.” Safeguard sends a signal to drones that enter this space instructing them to take corrective action. If they don’t fly back out of the zone or land on their own, that’s when the action happens. When it becomes clear that the drone’s autopilot isn’t going to respond, Safeguard brings the drone down in the “terminate zone.” This virtual wall before the no-fly zone makes sure nothing gets inside.

These geofences can take any shape or size. Safeguard uses GPS and a NASA algorithm to determine where drones are in relation to the no-fly zones. The Safeguard technology itself is small enough to be mounted on any drone. Even though it’s not required on all drones now, it could be at some point, at least for certain types of drones. 

Before you get all worked up, you don’t need to worry that your drone is going to take an unexpected crash landing into the water during your pool party. As noted, this technology is only for designated no-fly zones. This means places like airports, stadiums, military bases, and other secure locations. Most people aren’t flying their drones around these areas anyways, and there’s almost always a warning that you’re in a no-fly zone. 

This is truly meant to keep the public safe in the crazy world of endless drone purchases. So, keep having fun with your toy in places you’re allowed to fly it, or risk watching it take a prompt tumble.

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