By Laura Stepanek, SDM Contributing Writer
Watchers of the 2020 Olympics opening ceremony in July were treated to an astonishing show in the sky right above Olympic Stadium. It began as thousands of lights took the three-dimensional shape of the Tokyo 2020 emblem. While viewers watched and wondered how this effect was achieved, the lights slowly began to morph into a rotating planet Earth, with white lights representing land masses and blue lights for waters. Taking a bow for this stunning performance were 1,824 drones.
In addition to their starring role in the Olympics, drones are also playing an increasingly important role in the security industry. They can be used for good — to perform security checks and other industrial tasks — or they can be used for nefarious purposes, in which case a security integrator can deploy an airspace security system that detects and alerts to the presence of unwanted drones, perhaps even taking over and landing them. Together with their autonomous cousin, the security robot, these solutions fall under a broader umbrella of products that deal with newer threats and risks not currently addressed by traditional security products.
Although they are only just getting their start in the security industry, security robots, surveillance drones and airspace security (counter-drone or drone defense) solutions hold significant opportunity for the right security integrators. Today in the security industry the products are sold mostly by the top integrators, primarily because robots, drones and counter-drone systems were used by the military and other government agencies early on. However, current factors are causing new sales opportunities to emerge in commercial markets, making the business more accessible to all types and sizes of security companies.
Most experts say the technology behind many of these systems is not difficult for integrators to grasp, but what makes the learning curve steep is understanding which applications are best suited for each of these products and implementing them effectively. Every solution has myriad considerations that are vastly different from those of an access control or video surveillance system, for example.
Many security integrators take their cues from PSA Security, a consortium of progressive security and audio-visual systems integrators, which represents over $4.5 billion annually in project sales. In a pioneering announcement earlier this year, PSA declared that it had added Dedrone to its Managed Security Service Provider (MSSP) Program. “Dedrone protects organizations from malicious and unauthorized drones by securing the air space using sensors and software technology,” the press release states. See this video online for more on this partnership.
This was a significant announcement for the industry, because airspace security is aligned with perimeter security, says Tim Brooks, PSA’s vice president of sales. Hardening the perimeter beyond the physical structure of a building by adding detection or surveillance to a fence, for example, is definitely a job for electronic security integration companies. But drones are a whole new ball game, Brooks adds, because in the past an intruder would have to physically climb over the fence or crash the gate to breach the perimeter.
“But a $200 drone can fly right over that fence and right above the cameras,” Brooks says. “And most cameras don’t look above the horizon. A drone flies fairly silently right into the perimeter. They can land on the roof and drop a little Raspberry Pi surveillance [device] that’s going to hop on the Wi-Fi network and intercept printer traffic. If it’s a correctional facility, it can drop contraband or weapons. If it’s corporate espionage, they can watch activities in a testing yard that’s outside.”
There are numerous malicious activities drones can do that a human being who’s walking or riding in a vehicle can’t do, he says. “So our message to the security integrators is that you definitely need to be involved in this because it is right in your wheelhouse. If you think you’re going to sell gate operators and fence detection but not sell drone detection, that’s kind of silly. Somebody is, and it’s going to be another security integrator,” Brooks advises.
In 2017, Allied Universal Technology Services, headquartered in Santa Ana, Calif. and ranked No. 5 on SDM’s Top Systems Integrators Report, recognized the importance that unmanned systems and their technology to detect, control and direct activity would have on security programs, states Sherman Brawner, general manager of the Monitoring & Response Center at Allied Universal. “Allied Universal recognized it was time to become a part of the rising tide of unmanned systems and adopt practices allowing our teams to become well-informed and assist in the best methods, timing and implementation of these devices and their software. Even more importantly, we needed to answer questions from customers and prospects about the use of unmanned systems and help separate fact from fiction and practical application in concert with economic feasibility."
San Francisco-based Dedrone protects organizations from malicious drones by securing the airspace using advanced hardware and software technology. It is an opportunity for security integrators who understand the nature of perimeter protection, surveillance and standard operating procedures, says Mary-Lou Smulders, chief marketing officer. “Drones are simply introducing a new vector for all of the same traditional threats. It's just a new way of entering with often those same nefarious intents in mind,” she describes, adding that airspace security is a very natural extension for security integrators.
Dedrone has three phases of implementation, starting with phase one, threat assessment, which is an out-of-the-box, easy-to-implement and inexpensive solution. The base model is one sensor with its own mobile Wi-Fi connection, and it can be set up in 15 minutes. “What it gives you is, ‘Are there drones in my sky? If so, how many? When did they appear? What kind are they?’ What kind of drones is really important, because it tells you what their payload, speed and range are, so you start to get a sense of the threat,” Smulders describes.
Phase two adds location and capability. The third phase addresses integration with other systems that a customer may have, such as cameras and radar. “Once the system detects the drone, we can put eyes on it. The camera follows the drone; we use very sophisticated artificial intelligence and machine learning technology to keep an eye on it,” she explains.
“Drones are growing by leaps and bounds,” Smulders acknowledges. “At the same time, and accelerated by COVID-19, the world is innovating at an incredibly rapid pace around new, innovative, productive uses of drones. Everything from the Biden Administration using drones to inspect infrastructure, to medical deliveries to far off places, to — as we’re all hoping for — Amazon package delivery and pizza delivery via drone. The consequence of that is there will be more and more drones in the sky. We’ve seen that growth accelerate over the last 18 months and it’s not stopping anytime soon. In fact, the U.S. government is looking at all sorts of legislation to even further increase that drone growth and productive drone innovation applications.”
What this represents to security integrators, Smulders thinks, is an opportunity to grow and enhance the implementation over time, giving more opportunity for integrators to expand that footprint.
Another airspace security provider, D-Fend Solutions, based in Ra’anana, Israel, with offices in McLean, Va., offers EnforceAir, its flagship anti-drone product, featuring counter-drone, cyber, radio frequency (RF)-based takeover technology. The system, in either autonomous or manual mode, detects, locates and identifies rogue drones in the defined protected airspace and then neutralizes the threat by taking full control over the drone and landing it safely in a predefined zone. “Since the system does not rely upon jammers or kinetic technology, EnforceAir avoids collateral damage, interference, disruption and disturbance. Continuity prevails as communications, commerce, transportation and everyday life smoothly proceed,” describes Jeffrey Starr, chief marketing officer, D-Fend Solutions.
EnforceAir’s technology has a number of critical advanced features and capabilities, Starr highlights. It has the capability to mitigate risk by taking control of drones. It is an advanced, autonomous system that distinguishes between authorized and unauthorized drones and lands rogue drones safely at a predefined safe zone, facilitating continuity. The system has an open API for integration with command-and-control systems.
D-Fend Solutions’ counter-drone system, which is sold through complementary partners, including security systems integrators with specialized expertise in UAS, C-UAS, cyber and integration, is used to contend with a wide range of security and safety threats. Representative use cases include: potential attack, since drones can transport explosives or other weapons that can cause serious harm and costly damage; collisions from drones entering the flight path of an aircraft, or drones crashing into individuals or crowds; smuggling of drugs, weapons or other contraband; and espionage, with drones using their powerful cameras to spy on individuals or sensitive sites, Starr says.
For more information about airspace security, see this related blog in SDM, “Who Is Looking up?”
Having a robot or a drone was very appealing to many organizations, Brawner says, because they thought it would give them a progressive and high-tech profile that would be desirable to employees, investors and customers in their industry segment, and help them gain a competitive advantage. “As a result, interest was very high and questions about costs and timing to deploy created a very high number of requests,” he says.
Allied Universal found that these requests came from many different commercial market segments beyond the military and government, which had been the traditional customers for autonomous systems.
What comes to mind first when thinking of airspace security, naturally, is airports. Though many airports have drone detection systems in place, not all do. In fact, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced in August 2020 that it planned to test at least 10 technologies or systems that could detect and mitigate potential safety risks posed by unmanned aircraft. The effort will be part of the agency’s Airport Unmanned Aircraft Systems Detection and Mitigation Research Program. One report states the testing could last up to 24 months.
Drone detection is also being considered in the corrections industry to prevent contraband, sporting venues to prevent competitive spying or extremist activity, and even corporations to secure their intellectual property from theft. “Just like cybersecurity is required to protect the intellectual property that resides on the computers in your building, the same thing is true with intellectual property that may be able to be sniffed,” Brooks explains. “Instead of somebody hacking in remotely, they can bring a drone in with a hacking device that would put itself right in the local network, bypassing the internet, and then steal proprietary information.”
Other than the airspace security solution, PSA does not represent any security robot or surveillance drone products at this time, because, Brooks says, their members aren’t asking for them. While the idea of using a drone for surveillance is perfect in incident management and other live events, Brooks believes some integrators look at drones as a consumer-type product, “readily available, inexpensive and with no margin,” and integrators typically focus on installed and integrated products.
However, some of the largest security integrators currently have all three products — drone surveillance, airspace security and security robots — in their solutions portfolios.
Allied Universal has deployed unmanned autonomous systems for clients in manufacturing, logistics, shipping, commercial real estate, airport, large retail and residential communities, Brawner says. The applications are extensive and include parking lot security, after-hours patrols and detection of persons or vehicles in secured locations. “Response to reported events by employees, detection alerts from electronic security systems such as thermal cameras, capture and reporting of black-listed license plates, and even visitor entry management are all aspects of these types of deployments,” he says.
Convergint, based in Schaumburg, Ill., SDM’s No. 1 Top Systems Integrator, also has been specifying drones, drone detection and security robots for several years. The company’s work in this area was led by its federal teams, since governments adopted the solutions much earlier than commercial markets. Convergint has a substantial body of work in federal agencies and departments. However, over the last couple of years, Convergint also has seen the interest in these technologies bleed over into the commercial market in segments such as data centers, energy, oil and gas and large manufacturing.
“Drones are really a game changer, both for good guys and bad guys,” says Scott Frigaard, business development manager for data fusion on Convergint’s Digital Transformation Team. “For good guys, [there’s] the ability to do guard force reduction, the ability to take people out of harm’s way, the ability to limit liability. And then for bad guys, just the potential for threat vectors is astounding. The ability to put a rogue wireless access point on a drone, fly the drone onto a building roof and then tap into the building’s network — I think I saw a month or so ago that someone had used a drone to unlock a Tesla by just getting the drone near the Tesla. … There are just so many needs that arise from these technologies, and the technologies themselves are adapting so quickly that it’s impressive. Our customers have really forced the adoption by Convergint into these solutions.”
Lowered product cost is forcing serious inspection of these solutions due to the pandemic-induced lockdowns and the result of having fewer people staffing large plants, he adds. “Guard force reduction is a huge initiative among just about every commercial entity, especially over the last year as they’ve had fewer folks in their facilities and they’re trying to figure out how they are going to staff.”
Some of the first customer deployments for Convergint were for border protection and correctional facilities. “We are seeing at the federal, state and local levels, a significant increase in contraband deliveries flown by drones,” Frigaard says. Correctional facilities gain an advantage by being able to detect a drone as soon as it is powered up outside of the facility, and they can interdict the pilot rather than wait for the contraband — whether it’s a weapon, a cell phone, money or drugs — to be dropped into the prison yard, he says.
Since then, the integrator has deployed drone detection systems for chemical manufacturers, energy companies and agricultural organizations to prevent terrorist activity or even just spot hobbyists who are out exploring with their drones. Frigaard says there is a potential for pilots to crash the drone and damage an organization’s outdoor equipment or, worse, put an explosive device on the drone and set fire to a facility.
Convergint also is deploying drones for pipeline inspections and facility inspections. Instead of sending people to drive hundreds of miles to do visual inspections, possibly in inclement weather, the drones perform automated inspections, sometimes with thermal cameras for detecting temperature anomalies. The company also has data center clients that are using wheeled robots as perimeter patrols and several large manufacturing customers for aerial drone patrols, as they look at reducing overall security costs.
Modi’in, Israel-based Percepto has an AI-powered autonomous “drone-in-a-box” solution called Sparrow, which performs smart security patrols and emergency response tasks at industrial sites. Powered by Percepto’s Autonomous Inspection and Monitoring (AIM) platform, Sparrow is equipped with AI features such as detection and tracking of suspicious persons or objects, and anomaly detection.
Percepto’s solution is ideal for cost-effectively augmenting facility perimeter security patrols, gate inspections, parking lot monitoring and inventory inspections, describes Illy Gruber, vice president of marketing. The company’s traditional market is heavy industrial sites, such as mines, energy facilities and oil and gas refineries. “Since the pandemic struck, however, more verticals have recognized the need for autonomous inspection, from food supplies to high-end car manufacturers,” Gruber says.
“During the pandemic, facilities were forced to take the plunge into autonomous technology to ensure business continuity. Since then, there’s been no going back. Autonomous security solutions have proven themselves valuable — and that speaks for itself. If a facility can ramp up security, improve deterrence and keep their employees safe with promising ROI — why not?” she asks.
Gruber explains that while the technology itself should be fairly simple to operate (this should be a key touchstone for choosing a vendor, she says), drone regulation can be quite challenging. In most countries, regulators are hesitant to allow drones to fly fully autonomously, without a human operator on site. “Remote operation was critical for many of our clients during the pandemic, as there was no one on site to operate the drones. While integrators may have difficulty fully navigating drone regulations alone, they should work with a vendor with the regulatory knowledge and relationships to get the operational approvals they need,” she advises.
San Francisco-based Sunflower Labs has pivoted since the company first presented itself to the security industry at the 2019 ESX show, where founder and CEO Alex Pachikov was a keynote speaker. Originally targeting the high-end residential market, Sunflower Labs faced hurdles wrought by the pandemic, which drove it to reposition its security and surveillance drone for commercial and industrial use cases. Despite facing challenges with the manufacturing process, Sunflower employees hand-built their own units for initial rollout until a more reliable manufacturing solution could be found. The company is prepared to make a big announcement this month about funding and partnerships.
“The pandemic reduced the amount of security staff in a lot of locations and now, instead of increasing security personnel because in some cases they can’t hire those people, they want to introduce various robots in order to be able to provide security of these large properties; this is exactly where we come in,” Pachikov describes.
Sunflower has deployed its drone system for a large Japanese company that does security and inspections of industrial complexes. It also has a large deployment for a multi-acre self storage company. “They’re remote, they’re unmanned, so you basically put our system on the roof and it flies around and covers it,” Pachikov describes.
He says the use cases for Sunflower Labs systems are very broad, but there is a common thread: large, open spaces that need security. “When you have a place like this self storage facility, think how many cameras you actually need to effectively cover a site like that. You’re literally talking dozens. Whereas with one drone you can survey that whole area in under two minutes,” Pachikov says.
Pachikov calls it “providing dynamic observation” or being able to be a security camera at any place on a property. “Instead of having to install many, many cameras to cover a location, you just create a flight path, or what we call a ‘sweep,’ where you can go from one location to the other in seconds and be able to observe.”
Security integrators’ reception of PSA Security’s airspace security solution has been very positive, Brooks notes. He says integrators should have an easy time with the technology because with the base level of the Dedrone Solution they literally put up a single detection device on a tripod on the roof of the building, plug it into their client’s network, and it collects data of the airspace activity and provides a report after 30 days. More advanced levels are offered and can be deployed, depending on the results of the report. “But it’s no more difficult than installing a camera outside,” he relates.
The most difficult part of selling airspace security is for integrators to wrap their heads around the idea, because it’s new, Brooks says. “This is not a higher megapixel camera; this is not a different type of card reader technology. This is something completely different than what they’ve been doing and it takes some getting used to.”
The technology itself varies from one manufacturer to another and each prospective deployment is custom, Brawner describes. “Add this to the hype and misconceptions from both the general public and the industry itself and the challenges to design an applicable deployment and meet expectations are not insignificant,” he says.
Frigaard at Convergint says these technologies are far different than those sold over the last 20 years in physical security. “The learning curve on drones is steep. You’ve got FAA regulations, which dictates how, where and when it can be flown. The training is a significant component of a customer deployment.
“You’ve got total cost of ownership. We’re looking at some of these applications to reduce guard force, but it comes with other costs. For instance, it’s one thing to say that this drone or this robot can take the place of four workers in a given area, but it’s another thing to say, ‘If the drone detects something, who’s going to respond to that? Where is this person going to come from? How are they going to be dispatched?’” he asks.
Frigaard cautions that there are lessons to be learned from perception. A security integrator can install impressive technologies, but if the perception of the employees, guests or customers is not positive, then that wasn’t a beneficial use case of that technology, he claims.
“There really are a number of things that have to be evaluated nowadays that just weren’t there in the past. In the past, you would install a video surveillance system and just put a sign up that read, ‘Cameras in Use.’ Now there are government agencies that have to be involved. There’s long-term training. We’re really moving away from just security operators to more analysts in a lot of these instances,” Frigaard says. “They’re threat hunters really, where they are trying to aggregate more and more data sets, they’re trying to detect patterns and trends so that they can take very, very minor security incidents and prevent that from escalating into bigger issues.”
The technology is the easiest part of a drone or robot solution for an integrator to navigate, Frigaard continues. Installing and configuring these solutions is “fairly straightforward. The learning curve is in the customer use cases: being able to understand the client’s operations and their goals so that we can translate that product’s capabilities into an actual benefit to them.”
For example, integrators need to help their clients consider, “’What are you going to do when you have an alert? How is your security force going to respond to this? How are you going to integrate with first responders? How does this technology fit into your security operations center?’ I’d say that has been the biggest component to learning — understanding how these are going to integrate into the rest of the security operation,” Frigaard says.
Knightscope, Mountain View, Calif., creates both indoor and outdoor stationary and mobile security robots. The company views itself not as a robotics business, but as a provider of actionable intelligence of situations, using robots as the platform to host numerous technologies. For example, on the surveillance side alone, Knightscope’s robots perform people detection through facial recognition or cell phone signal detection, license plate recognition and thermal imaging (useful for detecting a heat signature).
The company’s top use case where it has had the majority of successes is outdoor environments, in mixed use areas and particularly in parking structures. The top six segments for Knightscope’s robots are: transportation, manufacturing, logistics, healthcare, casinos and corporate campuses.
“There’s a long road to be able to get fluent in something like this,” cautions Stacy Stephens, Knightscope’s co-founder, executive vice president and chief client officer. “It’s incredibly, incredibly complex and complicated. The robots require multiple inputs and multiple sensors, and understanding the autonomous side of the technology is really where this has to come in.”
For example, the robot has to be able to determine where it is within an environment and triangulate its location using one or more devices that correlate, such as a laser system, sonars or the GPS system, all incorporated on the robot. They see, hear and feel the surrounding environment in order to navigate successfully in areas where there is pedestrian or vehicular traffic.
Stephens says that is where the complexity and unfamiliarity comes into play. In addition, it takes a lot of understanding to know where a robot can be used most effectively on a site.
Detroit-based Robotic Assistance Devices (RAD) says one of the things it is known for is having complete security in a box, including being cellular-optimized to enable communication more easily. The company has solutions that are suitable for applications such as property management, construction and retail. For example, the Wally HSO (Health Screening Option) robot is designed for facilities that do health screening.
Founder and CEO of RAD, Steve Reinharz, believes integrators are being challenged right now by robotics technology. Reinharz, a former security integrator himself, says it’s because robotics technology requires the expertise of a service-based organization. “And as much as in the integration space we like to believe or perceive or present ourselves as service companies, as integrators, we’re not. We’re effectively specialty electrical contractors,” he says.
This does not mean that security integrators can’t participate in the robot business, but it will require an evolution of sorts and an investment. “It’s going to be a deviation from the typical proven method of how to build a successful integrator, which is execute your contracts efficiently, keep costs low and move from contract to contract,” Reinharz relates.
The first requirement is having strong support by the executive level of your company. “It starts with whoever is owning or running the company having an understanding that building this type of recurring monthly revenue can drive additional integration sales, strengthen relationships with customers, help solve problems and help insulate against future obsolescence,” he says.
“Security robots are not something that you just add to the line card because they’re ‘cool.’ They require dedicated salesforce and investment,” Reinharz assesses. That is why he believes robots should be a separate operating division within a security integrator business.
Brawner at Allied Universal concurs. “You have to carefully assess how to apply this technology to deliver real world solutions. It’s easy to get enamored with the newest and shiniest technology, but that rapturous ideation is different than actual usage,” he says.
“While there will always be a need for personnel to be involved in strategic decision making, situational analysis and security response, machines excel at monotonous, computationally heavy and sometimes hazardous or difficult-to-reach work. Modern robots and drones help bridge the gap between artificial intelligence and human response,” Brawner says.
Companies can’t overlook developing a successful business model, as well. Brawner says one of the first challenges at Allied Universal was determining what type of pricing and service model would work best for its clients. It was clear that selling a robot outright would not be a pathway to success in most instances, he says. “So, what was developed was a system similar to cable TV where you buy a subscription that comes with a cable box. The robot is the delivery device for the service that we sell. The customer doesn’t have to worry about delivery and set up, repairs, routine preventative maintenance, licensing to the user interface, etc. It’s a package price, and the consumer pays one predictable monthly fee,” he describes.
It is important for security integrators to determine how surveillance drones, airspace security solutions and security robots can be used to solve problems, while not overlapping with other technologies that are already doing the job. To gain the knowledge needed for this new realm in security, they should research the space and partner with experts, particularly those knowledgeable about regulations. An extensive level of internal support is needed to be successful in the autonomous drone and robot space, starting with your company’s executive leadership. SDM