Asian firms sell illegal drone jammers to Europe
As use increases, drones cause more and more public irritation, and citizens might ponder how to combat them on their own, possibly using the sort of jamming devices that are Illegal in the UK. In an attempt to expose the practice, we tested how it is to buy one. It revealed how easily they are being sold and shipped.
Drones can be invasive and irritating, and as their use has spiralled during lockdown, so has the number of complaints about them. We don’t have confirmed UK statistics yet and have to rely on figures from individual police forces, but the trend seems clear, pointing towards a growing problem.
The reason behind burgeoning complaints is probably a mixed bag of factors. A surge in drone use, both by law-enforcement services and hobbyists, may have been caused by more solitary time under lockdown restrictions and tight regulations across the UK. All may have contributed to what some forces reported.
Legally, members of the public can call the police if they encounter misuse. Drones can raise concerns about safety as well as privacy. Citizens in the UK are advised to report if they see a pilot breaking the law, but the definition of misuse can be broad and may appear as if outside of the remit of local law enforcement services.
From a technical perspective, there are other options to combat drones. One is the use of radiofrequency (RF) jamming devices that can disrupt the communications link between a drone and its pilot by swamping the drone with a stronger radio signal, a note by the UK Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology reads.
Private use of drone jammers without a licence is prohibited in the UK and also in some other European countries. Meddling with a flying aircraft is illegal, and the Wireless Telegraph Act prohibits jamming of commercial RF bands and GPS.
However, some individuals may take matters into their own hands and commit a crime by buying and using such devices online, mainly from Asia.
We put to the test how easy it is to acquire such a device online. Despite not going the whole mile in purchasing one, the exercise reveals how straightforward the practice seems, mirroring previous findings by others.
We attempted to obtain a jamming gun from the UK and from Germany. We used the online sales platform Made-in-China.com, which is advertised as a leading B2B e-commerce website for suppliers, wholesalers and exporters.
After making an inquiry for a military-grade jammer gun (see image) at counter-UAVs solution manufacturer Wavesonic Technology, a sales representative reached out to us via email.
By pretending that we want to ‘protect our property from drones’ the sales representative based in China sends us images and additional description of the product.
Despite clearly stating that we are based in Europe and are private individuals, the salesperson insists that it is not a problem to ship the jammer gun to us. “It can be used to protect your private estate from an unwanted drone threat”, he assures us.
The jammer gun isn’t cheap. The price tag is $5,000. The company is based in Wuhan, China, and can ship to Europe, no questions asked.
There is one caveat, though. The salesperson informs us that due to its nature of ‘being a gun’, the device would need to be disassembled and then reach us in separate smaller parcels. We are assured we can reassemble the gun ourselves when we receive it.
“Although it’s not a real gun with bullet[s], our country has strict regulation for exporting gun-type products, so we will disassemble it into several parts, and delivery to you by separate packages by DHL or TNT”, the salesperson writes in an email.
“But you don’t worry to assemble it, it’s very easy, with plug-in-out connectors,” the person writes.
Disassembly and shipment of parts of prohibited products from Asia to western countries is fairly common. In 2019, US officials intercepted and seized almost 53,000 illegal Chinese gun parts in three separate shipments at an LA port, hidden in containers with other household items such as apparel toys, and machinery.
Recently, Asian drone-jamming device manufacturers, as well as governments that purchase the equipment, came under fire. One concern is that when governments use jammers, they risk spreading fear and misconceptions.
One recent example was that of military officers in Mexico who protected the national palace at the beginning of March with Hikvision UAV Jammer rifles to target drones. Some observers mistook the appearance for sniper rifles. Posts went viral on social media. The occasion was a march organised to mark International Women’s Day. The government spent millions on purchasing the devices. The US Federal Communications Commission counts Hikvision among vendors that pose an “unacceptable risk to national security or the security and safety of US citizens”.
The legal option: Make a complaint about misuse
Instead of opting for an illegal option, citizens can make a complaint. Nonetheless, concerns may remain unaddressed. That’s often less the fault of the police. Citizens might be unwilling to notify law-enforcement services and oppose an investigation to include their details on file. For privacy-conscious citizens in the US this could raise some questions, privacy expert Michael Bazzell says.
One would assume the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) in the UK to be the safest option to make a complaint to. But the job of the body is safety only, excluding any concerns over privacy or broadcast rights. Though, claiming to be in charge of overseeing and regulating “all aspects of civil aviation’, the CAA sends concerned citizens straight to the police. The police has “greater resources, response times and powers of investigation than the CAA”, it says on its website.
Naturally, with more consumer drones in the air, there will be more complaints. Complaint statistics suggest a rise in the UK in 2014, and between 2015 and 2016 when they tripled.
Hobbyist drone users must comply with a strict set of regulations. That is positive but also increases the chance for drone pilots to overstep the bounds of the law more easily. As citizens learn more about what’s allowed and what isn’t, complaints may further jack up.
Amid another recent wave of crackdown on illegal and unsafe drone use, MPs discussed laws early last year that could put police in charge of drone ‘stop and search’. Though potentially beneficial, it raises the question of whether police have the resources and time.
This January, the UK government untightened some age requirements by lifting the minimum age for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) pilots. This could open up the drone space to more ‘untrained’ users.
The EU has tightened its regulatory framework, too. In 2019, it published regulations on new rules for operating drones, which started to come into effect last year and is subject to transitional provisions. It stated that drones should be as operated safely as those in manned aviation.