Preventing a Drone Attack on the Pope: D-Fend Solutions Deployed During Open Air Mass

drone attack on popeD-Fend Solutions counter-UAS system protects against a drone attack on the Pope during open-air worship

By Jim Magill

As the number of commercial and consumer drones increases worldwide, and as drones become more sophisticated in their abilities to carry potentially dangerous payloads as they fly virtually undetected through sensitive airspace, the need for deploying counter-drone measures against potentially hostile drones increases.

A cyber-based, drone-takeover system developed by Israeli/U.S.-based counter-drone technology company, D-Fend Solutions, recently thwarted a potential drone attack on an open-air mass in Slovakia, celebrated by Pope Francis and attended by an estimated crowd of 60,000 worshippers.

During the incident, which took place in September, the company deployed its proprietary EnforceAir technology to detect the presence of an unidentified drone, and then to locate and track it and take it over, forcing it to land at its takeoff point, thus mitigating any potential threat.

“The drone was fended off without any disruption to the mass itself, so continuity prevailed and a potential incident became a non-incident,” Jeffrey Starr, D-Fend Solutions’ chief marketing officer, said in an interview.

The EnforceAir system allowed the Slovakian security forces charged with protecting the Pope, 90 bishops, 500 priests and other VIPs attending the mass, to take control of the unidentified drone, and bring it down safely, in a way that other counter-drone systems are unable to do, Starr said.

“We don’t shoot at drones and we don’t jam drones,” he said.

Protecting Against a Drone Attack on the Pope – and Ensuring Crowd Safety

During the Pope’s weeklong visit to the country, D-Fend solutions deployed its technology to protect him and other visiting VIPs at a number of events, culminating in the large-scale open-air mass at the conclusion of his visit.

The assignment was especially challenging in that it involved two different counter-drone strategies: VIP protection and ensuring safety at major events, featuring large crowds and a number of “friendly” unmanned aircraft, operated by the media, communications personnel and security forces.

“When you’re doing VIP protection with a counter-drone system, the person you’re protecting is often on the move,” he said. For security forces, it’s imported that the counter-drone system they use be transportable enough to be quickly set up and configured, and then to be dismantled and moved to another location just as quickly.

“It has to be able to move on a vehicle, so you have this moving bubble of protection,” Starr said.

At the scene of the mass itself, held in the town of Šaštín, home to the National Marian Shrine, D-Fend Solutions faced a different set of security challenges. The skies were filled with a number of unmanned aerial vehicles performing proper roles, including supporting security and providing communications to the global media covering the event. There were also a number of ground-based antennas and communications systems in the area, creating an associated high radio-frequency (RF) interference environment.

Upon detecting the unidentified drone in the area, security personnel on the scene at first considered trying to jam the UAV’s communications, but quickly decided against that solution, as jamming radio signals could potentially disrupt legitimate ‘ systems in the area, halt transmissions of the Pope’s address during Mass, and disrupt the operations of security base stations.

Instead, using D-Fend Solutions’ EnforceAir system, the security forces were able to fend off the potential threat. Starr said he did not know if the security officials were able to determine the identity of the unidentified drone’s owners or pilots.

“That’s an operational detail the operators would know. We, as the technology provider, don’t know what further actions were taken beyond the incident itself,” he said.

“Most security agencies have their own methods and processes of engagement. Their options depend on technologies they’ve deployed,” Starr said. “We advocate a multi-layered approach, using multiple technologies to give multiple options and layers of defense to the security bodies.”

D-Fend Solutions, with dual headquarters in Ra’anana, Israel and McLean, Virginia, offers its clients an RF-based, cyber-takeover technology. EnforceAir’s software-defined radio (SDR) sensor, which performs all functions of the system, is controlled and configured by an intuitive management tablet.

The company’s EnforceAir Ground-Level Tactical kit features an ultra-wide-band ground-level antenna, which provides 360° azimuth coverage and up to 40° elevation coverage suitable for ground-level deployments. The kit comes complete with a ground-level antenna, mechanical brackets and modular case for easy carrying.

In addition to its role in safeguarding the Pope during his visit to Slovakia, D-Fend Solutions has also been involved with providing counter-drone protection for other international events, such as the recent G-8 Summit in the UK.

Starr said D-Fend Solutions system differs from those of other counter-UAS companies, whose technological approach is derived from military applications. “We’re very much focused on safety, control, continuity and safe outcomes,” he said.

Jim Magill is a Houston-based writer with almost a quarter-century of experience covering technical and economic developments in the oil and gas industry. After retiring in December 2019 as a senior editor with S&P Global Platts, Jim began writing about emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, robots and drones, and the ways in which they’re contributing to our society. In addition to DroneLife, Jim is a contributor to and his work has appeared in the Houston Chronicle, U.S. News & World Report, and Unmanned Systems, a publication of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.