Arms makers are targeting the growing menace of drones at airports and on battlefields with a rush to develop new missile systems, radar jammers and laser cannons.
U.S. forces, along with Middle East allies and Russian troops, have been forced to confront hostile drone operations. Commercial flights at some of the world’s busiest hubs—in New York, London and Dubai—have been grounded in recent months amid concerns that nearby drones could endanger airliners.
The rising number of incidents has put the threat in the public eye and propelled interest in anti-drone technology. Defense industry officials say armed forces still account for most spending.
The anti-drone market should exceed $1.2 billion in annual sales next year and top $1.5 billion in 2021, Frost & Sullivan estimated. While that is a fraction of the spending each year on combat aircraft, the fast-growing category could become a lucrative new revenue stream for weapons makers.
Drones are “starting to become a really big problem,” said Hakan Buskhe, chief executive of Swedish defense company Saab AB. Anti-drone equipment “is something we are in discussion on with many countries and authorities around the globe.”
For airports, the principal way to counter drones is to disrupt their radio and navigation links. Industry executives say few tech suppliers have invested in the technology so far, although London Gatwick airport has said it has bought unspecified military-grade counter-drone equipment. Gatwick endured three days of disruption in December because of malicious drone use, during which police were cleared to shoot down the drone. The opportunity never arose.
Armed forces, in contrast, typically have more leeway to use lethal force to down unmanned aircraft because they don’t have to worry about nearby airplanes and civilians. That has prompted a global arms race among manufacturers to develop new anti-drone technology. Often the same companies that sell drones also market equipment to down them.
Counter-drone systems designed for armed forces vary in complexity because the unmanned-aircraft threat is diverse, ranging from modified hobbyist equipment to sophisticated military systems.
Lockheed Martin Corp. , the Pentagon’s biggest weapons maker by sales, last month teamed with Germany’s Diehl Defence GmbH and Sweden’s Saab AB to sell a system for taking down drones, aircraft and missiles. It uses missiles to shoot down larger drones, while its radar also can spot smaller ones.
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