Dusseldorf, Berlin The drones over the oil and gas platforms off Norway come with unclear intentions. They are increasingly worrying employees at Wintershall Dea. You weren’t attacked, just spied on. The situation is “extremely worrying,” says Paul Smith, chief financial officer of the oil and gas company.
Smith refers to images from Ukraine. There, the remote-controlled flying objects would be used “to attack both civilians and the energy infrastructure.” In Germany, on the other hand, little has been heard or read about the drones in Norway.
Maybe also because they raise far more questions than there are answers to.
Officially, the senders of the unmanned missiles are not known. The Norwegian military positions itself with warships. Military experts suspect that the drones are being sent from Moscow. They are supposed to spy, intimidate, maybe even sabotage.
The alert is high after explosions on the Nord Stream pipelines off the Danish island of Bornholm in September. Since the start of Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine, security authorities have been warning of attacks on critical infrastructure in countries participating in sanctions against the aggressor.
“The threat of drone attacks is more tense than ever”
Whether espionage by remote-controlled small drones or possible attacks by autonomously flying small aircraft – not only military objects are potential targets of drones. “The threat of drone attacks on German companies is more tense than ever before,” says Niko Seeger, director of consulting services at IT and management consultancy CGI Germany.
The sensor specialist Hensoldt is observing an increased interest in drone defense technology. At the Federation of German Industries (BDI), Matthias Wachter, who is responsible for security, is receiving increasing numbers of inquiries from industrial companies and authorities who inspect drones over their systems and are looking for advice.
According to the experts, airports and railway lines are particularly at risk, as are IT network operators and telecommunications companies. But what should and can they do about this threat?
Research by the Handelsblatt shows that the technical possibilities are limited and have hardly been tested. Legally, a lot lies in a gray area. One thing is certain: companies in Germany are not allowed to shoot down or fend off drones themselves. Anyone who sees a drone and feels threatened or spied on must contact the police. The Bundeswehr can only be deployed in Germany in the event of a terrorist attack or an external threat. And even the military can only help to a limited extent: many anti-drone measures are still being tested.
Shoot, disrupt, catch: how to fend off a drone?
The companies affected by the drones in Norway only provide limited information on the specific measures. “In view of the recent incidents in the Nord Stream pipelines, Wintershall Dea, like all operators on the Norwegian continental shelf, has increased the level of safety,” says a spokeswoman.
One is in close dialogue with the Norwegian security authorities. It sounds similar with the oil and gas company Equinor. The security level in Norway has been increased “for all office locations, plants, onshore facilities, supply points, helicopter bases and ships”.
Smart Shooter: Israeli target detection software could help shooters hit drones
Even small drones, which can be equipped with cameras, for example, pose a challenge. An insider says it is not possible for a sniper to shoot down such a flying drone. However, the Israeli company Smart Shooter has developed target recognition software that is supposed to make this possible, among other things.
UAV launch aerial view
Michal Mor, CEO and founder of Smart Shooter, told the Israeli news channel i24News about his software: “It makes no difference whether I shoot well or badly. The system corrects all my mistakes.” With larger drones loaded with explosives, things get even more complex. Laser weapons are the most suitable means of defense here. At the end of October, the Bundeswehr reported a first test success: Previously, it had managed to shoot down a drone from a frigate on the Baltic Sea.
The Bundeswehr is still in the early stages of using laser weapons against drones
The air defense specialist MBDA Germany and Rheinmetall are behind the development of the laser weapon demonstrator. However, it is far from being operational, according to the Navy environment.
Nevertheless, the laser weapons have advantages over conventional projectiles. “Drones cannot be combated with kinetic means in the civil sector. The risk of collateral damage would be too great,” says Thomas Gottschild, Managing Director of MBDA Germany. By kinetic means, Gottschild means projectiles such as rifle bullets or grenades.
But there are other options. At the moment, “for example, electromagnetic interference and cyber technology could be considered to bring down the drones, hack them or redirect them.” But these technologies also entail many risks.
The core competence of sensor specialist Hensoldt in drone defense lies in jamming control signals. A spokesman explains: “These electronic countermeasures may be used to a very limited extent in the civil sector and only by the police.” Electronic countermeasures could, for example, interrupt mobile phone signals and thus also conversations between rescue workers.
Airports are particularly easy targets
Because of such side effects, other means have so far been tested at airports. Drones have been a problem there for years: Even hobby pilots who just got lost in safety zones with drones are a danger to machines taking off and landing.
By the end of September, German air traffic control (DFS) had registered a total of 129 pilot disabilities. That’s almost as many as at the same time in 2018, the year with the most reported disabilities and the drone incident in England that shut down London Gatwick Airport for 32 hours.
It was also the year in which two scientists at the Helmut Schmidt University of the German Armed Forces in Hamburg began hunting drones with safety nets. Their interceptor drone is also intended to protect civilian companies from espionage and sabotage.
Project Falcon: Pursuit and interception from the intruder’s point of view
With the “Falke” project, Gerd Scholl, Professor of Electrical Measurement Technology, and laboratory manager Ralf Heynicke have tested a system for detecting and securing drones with partners from industry and authorities. In a first application, it should ensure the safe operation of airports. “Our means of intervention is an intercept drone that is supposed to collect small drones and place them at a predefined location,” says Gerd Scholl.
This is made possible by nets on the intercepting drone, which are ejected at the right moment with the help of intelligent software and can capture smaller drones. “The aim is to be able to hand over the drone to the federal police for examination and later to the public prosecutor’s office to preserve evidence, with as little damage as possible,” says Heynicke.
But even after the successful pilot test, it is still unclear whether a bank, a car manufacturer or a chemical company would actually be allowed to use the system developed by the Hamburg scientists. According to insiders, even the operation of a radar system to detect drones is not allowed without further ado. A special drone detection system from Hensoldt is used by two civil operators – but abroad.
More: After the Nord Stream attack: How Germany wants to protect its maritime infrastructure with high-tech