Emergency Responders Can’t Use 'Drone-Killer' Technology, Despite Life-Saving Potential - NBC 7 San Diego

Emergency Responders Can’t Use 'Drone-Killer' Technology, Despite Life-Saving Potential

The high-tech device can ground a wayward drone, thwart an airborne terror attack, and protect firefighters. But federal law prohibits the device’s use, leaving law enforcement with a valuable public-safety tool that it can’t use, at least for now.

On June 13, 2017, just after 3 p.m., Oceanside firefighters and police were called to a brush fire on Douglas Drive. 

The flames were spreading fast, pushed by 15 mph winds, so crews requested water drops from their helicopter to help douse the flames. 

But just moments before the drop, the officer in charge had to call off that much-needed air support because two wayward civilian drones were spotted flying over the flames. 

Those drones posed a potentially deadly safety threat to the helicopter pilots. 

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NBC 7's Mari Payton explains why federal law prohibits local law enforcement from using a potentially life-saving piece of equipment.

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“Firefighters had to go in and battle this fire [without air support], which [could] increase injuries to firemen,” said Oceanside Police Sergeant Tom Bussey. “It would have been a lot easier to have an aircraft come in and make a water drop.” 

Oceanside Fire confirmed that one firefighter was injured while battling that fire. And the blaze, which was purposely set by an arsonist, continued to grow, despite the department’s best efforts. By the next day, it had burned 85 acres.  

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That havoc caused by the two wayward drones prompted Oceanside Police (OPD) to search for a device that can disable unauthorized drones that interfere with public safety, or pose a criminal or terrorist threat. OPD soon learned that IXI Technology’s “DroneKiller” could be a valued addition to its crime-fighting arsenal. 

Though the name sounds destructive, “DroneKiller” does not destroy or damage its target. 

Instead, it forces an airborne drone to the ground, by sending a “go-home” signal to the drone operator’s controls. That signal directs the wayward drone to return to the spot from which it was originally launched and land. Police can then cite or arrest the drone operator for interfering with public safety, or other crimes. 

A photo of IXI Technology's "DroneKiller" device.

In March, IXI Technology donated one of its “DroneKillers” -- valued at more than $16,000 -- to the city of Oceanside. 

But federal government red tape has kept that “DroneKiller” on the shelf, unavailable for use by OPD, the city’s fire department or any county law enforcement or fire agency. 

“Right now, we’re in a holding pattern,” Bussey confirmed. 

The city of Oceanside originally planned on purchasing the "DroneKiller" device. To read more about that, click here.

NBC 7 Investigates found out why Oceanside’s public safety agencies can’t use this new technology. 

Interviews and emails confirm that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has not certified any drone intervention devices or approved their use by U.S. law enforcement or other public agencies. Currently, the “DroneKiller” and other drone intervention devices are only for use by the U.S. military, abroad. 

The FCC will not allow expanded use of the radio wave technology until it’s satisfied that the devices will not disrupt or “jam” other radio-controlled devices that are operating properly and within the law. 

In March, IXI Technology’s Director of Marketing Andrew Morabe told NBC 7 that Los Angeles law enforcement have already deployed the device for possible use at “the Rose Bowl, Rose Parade and the Golden Globe Awards”. 

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NBC 7 Investigates confirmed that the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has two drone-intervention-devices, including the same IXI "DroneKiller" device Oceanside acquired. 

L.A. Sheriff’s Commander Jack Ewell confirmed his department has taken the devices to large public gatherings but has never used them to bring down a suspected or renegade drone. 

Asked why his colleagues would bring the device to an event if they can’t legally use it, Ewell said only, “The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department follows all applicable laws and regulations at all times.” 

The Electronic Frontier Foundation endorses the FCC’s decision to thoroughly test all drone intervention devices before certifying them for use in the field. 

Jeremy Gillula, a technology expert with the San Francisco-based Foundation, said the FCC should establish and follow strict guidelines for the use of drone disabling technology, and also make sure that law-enforcement uses the devices only when appropriate, and only for legitimate public safety reasons. 

“They [could] use it with the best of intentions, and cause some collateral damage without meaning to," Gillula said. "Because a lot of the time, these [devices] can be abused, and people don't realize it until, you know, the police already have the technology.” 

Morabe told NBC 7 Investigates IXI Technology hopes to get FCC certification for the “DroneKiller” device sometime next year. Meanwhile, IXI is selling the device to the military and other federal agencies for use on foreign battlefields. 

When certification is granted, OPD spokesperson Bussey said his department will develop a policy and most likely a city ordinance establishing appropriate rules for using its “DroneKiller”. 

“It’s not something that you’re going to use every day, but at least it’s a tool you can put into your toolbox and if we do need it, we have it,” Bussey said. “If the FCC doesn’t approve it, we’ll probably send it back to IXI.”