Who you gonna call? Dronebusters

As consumer and commercial drones increase in popularity, a Portland startup confronts the safety and security threats. 

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 In a fourth-floor office overlooking the Pearl District, Jake Sullivan mimed shooting down a drone with a Super Soaker-sized radio frequency jamming gun. He calls the device the “Dronebuster.”

Sullivan kept his finger off the trigger. Squeezing it would jam local Wi-Fi and radio signals protected by FCC regulations.

Sullivan’s two-year-old company, Radio Hill Technologies, supplies the military and federal agents with Dronebusters. The device forces drones to stop and hover. A more powerful setting overwhelms the drone’s GPS signal, making it land or crash.

But without changes to federal regulations, Sullivan said, he’s cut off from 99% of the Dronebuster market: some 16,000 police departments, plus private security and firefighters. Those outlets, he says, could turn his million-dollar company into a billion-dollar enterprise employing hundreds of Oregonians. 

“We have good demand from the military,” Sullivan said, “but that’s not what we built it for.”

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Radio Hill Technologies CEO Jake Sullivan

While futurists eagerly await Amazon drone delivery, first responders sweat the considerable risks posed by unmanned aerial vehicles. Private drones nagged Coast Guard helicopters during Hurricane Harvey. They pestered firefighting aircraft dropping retardant on burns. They’ve smuggled drugs or weapons to prisoners.

“There have been numerous instances of private drones interfering with and even causing curtailment of air operations on wildland fires,” said Tom Zimmerman, president of the International Association of Wildland Fire.

“We looked at this an opportunity to move outside the realm of anything remotely classified or confidential,” Sullivan said, “and immediately got sucked right back into it.“

Sullivan, who has a background in physics and optic systems, including stints at defense contractors FLIR Systems and Flex Force Enterprises, came up with a solution: the Dronebuster. 

He started Radio Hill Technologies  in August 2015 after hearing about consumer drones hampering wildland firefighting aircraft near San Bernardino. Sullivan was tired of defense work, and thought this enterprise would take him in a new direction.

“We looked at this an opportunity to move outside the realm of anything remotely classified or confidential,” Sullivan said, “and immediately got sucked right back into it. “

When he tried to make his first sales to firefighters and police, he learned about legislation that prevents anyone except federal agents from combatting drones.

The Communications Act of 1934, enforced by the FCC, prohibits any attempts to jam radio frequencies.

On top of that, FAA regulations classify even toy drones as aircraft that are protected by a host of international treaties and 18 U.S. Code § 32, which imposes strict penalties for harming, or threatening to harm, an aircraft.

“A private citizen shooting at any aircraft – including unmanned aircraft – poses a significant safety hazard,” Allan Kenitzer, a spokesperson for the FAA said in a statement.

He declined to comment specifically on Radio Hill’s technology, which topples drones without firing projectiles into the air. 

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Sullivan with COO Greg Valentin

So Sullivan found himself back in the defense business. Radio Hill has filled Dronebuster orders for the Air Force, the Department of Defense, the Army and foreign governments (Sullivan wouldn’t disclose which ones).

“I’m fairly confident they’ve been used and been successful,” Sullivan said, “The products go down range, and they [the military] come back and order more.”

One potential military application of the Dronebuster is thwarting drone-delivered IEDs. As these weapons gain popularity with ISIS and other terrorist groups, the military sees the Dronebuster as the only combat-ready solution.

Radio Hill doesn’t need marketing, Sullivan said. So far, the competition is slim. An Australian company, Droneshield, manufactures a similar RF jamming gun. Other technologies are more primitive: Skywall’s 22-lb bazooka fires a net to ensnare drones. 

Beginning this January, Radio Hill’s revenue multiplied 100 times over, from $78,000 to around $7.8 million. The company employs about 10, and relies on around 50 subcontractors.

“People in Washington want more drones. They want to loosen up on safety regulations,” Matsuda said. “The security people are saying: whoa, let’s hold on here.”

While drone threats are obvious to soldiers abroad, they are less apparent to Washington lawmakers. According to FAA records, 461,420 drones weighing less than 55 lbs are registered in the U.S. or its territories. Oregon has 7,625 registered drones.

Those numbers are poised to grow. Legislators are flying full throttle toward more lax drone regulations, says Washington, D.C.-based consultant Dave Matsuda, a college friend of Sullivan’s who informally lobbies government officials on Radio Hill’s behalf.

The rabid enthusiasm reaches all the way to the top. In October, President Trump directed the Department of Transportation to relax drone regulations for commercial operators in US airspace.

“People in Washington want more drones. They want to loosen up on safety regulations,” Matsuda said. “The security people are saying: whoa, let’s hold on here.”

Under current legislation, the FAA can’t enforce its no-fly zones. Drones flew over a top-secret government facility photographing license plates, Matsuda said. Fort Lesley J. McNair, supposedly maintains a 15-mile radius of drone-free airspace, but sees two drone visits a day.

In a speech last year, an FAA official acknowledged that current law handicaps most federal, state and local agencies from combatting drones, Kenitzer said. The Department of Justice is leading a federal interagency group analyzing the safety and security risks of current drone laws.  

461,420: drones weighing less than 55 lbs registered in the US or its territories

Closer to home, Senator Ron Wyden seems eager to put technologies like the Dronebuster in the hands of first responders.

“I have heard firsthand from firefighters on the front lines in Oregon their concerns about private UAVs interfering with their life-saving work on wildfires,” Wyden said through his spokesperson. “I look forward to learning more about applying this technology and other potential solutions.”

It might be too little, too late. While legislators deliberate, Radio Hill sits on a production-ready prototype tailored to law enforcement.

“They understand there’s a problem, but they have so many other problems to discuss,” Sullivan said. “We would like to get our equipment in the hands of first responders before people die.”