​Defence Against Drone Swarms Emerges From Russian Lab

A need for counter-drone technology is increasing to protect energy infrastructure.

When a swarm of drones and missiles attacked Saudi oil facilities last September, knocking out five per cent of global production, one Russian company sensed an opportunity to build up its business.

Concern Avtomatika JSC – in Soviet times a secret military laboratory and now a state-run cybersecurity developer – saw a greater need among oil producers to defend their facilities from aerial assault. It has since sold anti-drone systems to Russian energy companies and is in talks to add clients abroad.

“Energy infrastructure is basically hardly protected from any physical air attack,” Concern Avtomatika’s General Director Vladimir Kabanov said in an interview. Although the company has been developing counter-drone technology for four years, the Saudi strike “has drawn even more attention from customers to the need to protect their infrastructure,” he said.

The attack on Abqaiq, the world’s biggest oil-processing facility, and an oil field at Khurais marked the first time multiple drones were launched long-distance in a targeted assault with such damaging consequences.

Just a couple of months later, Concern Avtomatika demonstrated its anti-drone system to various Russian oil companies. It now counts producer Tatneft PJSC and the Slavneft-Yanos refinery among its clients, and is in talks with energy giants Rosneft PJSC and Gazprom PJSC, according to Kabanov. This month it plans to finalize a contract with a foreign customer, he said, adding that it’s also in discussions with companies from Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

Industry boom

Concern Avtomatika – now part of high-tech manufacturer Rostec State Corp. – produces systems that disable drones automatically, semi-automatically or with an operator. Kabanov didn’t elaborate on how they function, but such systems typically include the use of radio waves to jam signals used by a drone pilot.

Unmanned aerial vehicles are becoming not just a feature of modern warfare. Lower production costs have led to an industry boom, with millions of pilotless devices sold worldwide to agricultural companies, technology firms and hobbyists every year.

In Saudi Arabia, the military manages the oil industry’s air defences. After the September attacks, the U.S. said it planned to send additional missile defence capabilities to the kingdom.

State-owned Saudi Arabian Military Industries is also working with international partners to protect critical infrastructure against drones, Defense News reported earlier this year. The kingdom’s defence ministry didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Drone swarm

In Russia, the number of drones surged to as many as 500,000 last year, according to Rosaviatsia, the nation’s aviation watchdog. They’ll reach 1 million by 2025, Moscow-based cybersecurity giant Kaspersky Lab said, citing industry research.

An anti-drone system can be sold for anything between several hundred-thousand rubles and several “dozens of millions,” depending on modifications, according to Kabanov. Annual running charges include a salary for the operator and planned maintenance.

While the cost can be steep, the damage caused to unprotected facilities by illegal -- or simply inexpert -- use of drones can prove far more expensive. In 2018, a drone fell on a Russian refinery, prompting a two-day halt of one production line and a loss estimated at more than 20 million rubles ($288,000), according to Kabanov, who didn’t identify the facility.

“Today, most of our clients understand that the costs of anti-drone defence are incomparably lower than damage caused by illegal devices,” he said.

© 2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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