The detection of threats that face high-value assets has been the core focus of Monaco-based MARSS since its establishment in 2006. The company emerged as a result of EU and NATO projects dedicated to the protection of installations such as ports, airports and anti-piracy measures. Since then, MARSS has seen increasing demand for the protection of projects such as superyachts from both a security and privacy perspective.
A growing threat that MARSS has identified is that of drones. Drone use across the world has seen a surge in growth. They are becoming faster, smaller, more technologically sophisticated and cheaper. Drones on the market today can be flown a long distance from their operator – up to 7km away, for over 20 minutes. They are fast, with some drones travelling 1km in just 50 seconds. The drones can also be fitted with cameras that capture 6K video that is streamed in real time back to the operator.
For superyacht owners and their crew, drones are a cause for concern. “In terms of threat to the yacht owner it really does depend on the client,” says Johnnes Pinl, CEO and Founder, MARSS. “Our clients include many different profiles such as heads of state or public figures but what we are finding is that the main issue from the drone point of view is really down to privacy protection.”
When it comes to rules and regulations, these are mostly related to operating a drone from an aviation/collision avoidance point of view and not privacy protection. There are laws on distances that should be kept between a drone and an asset or members of the public, but this varies depending upon location. The requirement for operator licences is also becoming increasingly common.
“It’s not all ‘doom-mongering’ as drones can be used for many valuable purposes,” continues Pinl “However, it could be something more sinister such as interfering with helicopter operations, taking pictures for media exposure or to understand the client’s movements.”
MARSS reports they have experienced an increase in enquiries about drone protection from superyacht crews and client offices, asking how they can protect vessels against drones.
An Integrated Approach
So, how do superyacht owners and crew go about taking action against drones and other threats to privacy and security? One of the principal challenges of drone detection for vessels is that both the drone and vessel are moving in an ever-changing environment, making long distance and reliable detection challenging. This is a key point because the primary goal of any security system is to increase the probability of detection, but also to decrease false alarms.
Furthermore, many clients view countermeasures such as jammers as a go-to solution but this does not fully address the problem. Drone protection requires a multi-layered approach starting with monitoring and detection – you need to know that a drone is there before you can do anything about it. Then tracking, classification and alerts to warn crew and guests of an approach.
MARSS have developed NiDAR, a software backbone that integrates many different sensors and hardware to give crews a better picture of what is going on in their environment at any time. The system is intelligent, using specially developed algorithms that analyse data to identify potential threats to the vessel from the air, surface or underwater.
Pinl explains: “Traditionally, these different sensors would standalone and would not be able to share information with a wider system. So you could have radar, cameras, sonar etc, and all of these would be independent components. As an integrated and automated system, NiDAR is able to pull data together from separate pieces of hardware into one place.”
NiDAR then analyses the data and works out what different objects are. Lastly, the data is clearly presented to operators in a single user interface.
Drone protection technology is constantly evolving. The drone manufacturers are providing technological solutions to detect their own drones, users and locations, but the main drawback of this is that only drones by a particular manufacturer can be detected.
The other development in terms of detecting drones over water is the use of Radio Frequency (RF) monitoring sensors that ‘sniff out’ non-identified drones by looking for drone video or control communications signals. These sensors are not restricted to a single drone manufacturer and can provide the bearing of a drone within a degree of accuracy, but the range is much shorter. Both these sensors/technologies can be integrated within NiDAR which would then notify the crew of the presence of a drone.
Preventative measures once a drone has been detected should be used with precaution. Pinl adds “Whilst technically achievable, RF and GPS jamming are generally frowned upon or it is expressly stated that they are prohibited. Governments and police forces, for example, are permitted to use jamming but individuals (including superyachts) generally are not.”
With regard to jamming MARSS states it is also highly unlikely that you would get a guarantee from a manufacturer that there would be no adverse effects of using their equipment related to your own or other nearby vessel navigation or communication systems, even with a directional jammer. They always recommend that clients, crew, and vessel managers read the smallprint and seek legal advice on this point to better understand the potential liabilities.
Pinl views the NiDAR system as a decision support tool by delivering fast, accurate and clear information. “The aim is to empower people to make better decisions under pressure,” he says.
As such, the best protection against drones from a superyacht operations perspective at this point in time is achieved by focusing more on early detection and warning to enable guests and crew to act, rather than relying on jamming countermeasures due to the legal issues mentioned.
The yachting world has very specific requirements when it comes to security. Systems must be discreet, enhance onboard operations and be able to withstand a harsh marine environment.
It is also important to recognise that protecting yachts takes a multi-layered approach. “Traditional yacht security and privacy protection meant the first line of defence was the yacht itself such as the vessel side, a lookout on the bridge or CCTV on board,” says Pinl. “It’s a bit like having a house in a garden where the first line of defence is the house itself, not the fence or the garden gate. What MARSS does is push that awareness away from on-board to ‘off-board’, offering extra security layers and increased reaction time.
MARSS are currently working on a number of projects within the yachting sector and has been involved with over 30 vessel projects ranging anywhere from 10m to well over 100m.