New palm-sized drone detector could protect your home's privacy

Aerospace engineer John Franklin has created the Drone Shield, a device that can detect drone activity near your home.

By 2020, the Federal Aviation Administration expects that there will be as many as 10,000 privately owned drones soaring through American airspace.

How can ordinary Americans ensure that the remotely controlled, largely unregulated flying devices aren’t used for more nefarious purposes, like listening to their conversations or snapping pictures of them?

One newly invented bulwark may be the Drone Shield, a crowd-funded and homemade drone detection device designed by Washington, D.C.-based aerospace engineer John Franklin.

Drone Shield uses a microphone to detect a drone's "acoustic signature," which it then absorbs and processes using an inexpensive, miniature Raspberry Pi computer. Then, the shield identifies the noise using an internal database of drone sounds.

Franklin said the inspiration for a drone detection system came from a close call he had in March with a drone he had bought on for about $300. One evening, Franklin was experimenting with his Parrot Drone to see if he could look at the surface of his roof with its camera. In the process however, Franklin's new purchase got away from him.

Related: FAA takes step toward widespread US drone flights

"I didn’t know it had an altitude limit and it began having problems with wind and drifting," Franklin recalled.

The drone continued to teeter and eventually crash landed in his neighbor's yard.

Nervously, Franklin had to explain to his neighbors why a flying device with a camera had ventured onto their property.

In general, Franklin thought, it would be a good idea if people had a way of knowing when a drone was on or approaching their property.

Soon after the mishap with his neighbors, Franklin began laying schemes for just that: a palm-sized, Wi-Fi-connected detection device that sends users a text message or e-mail when a flying device is near their home.   

Drone Shield, of course, has limits. It can't detect high-flying drones like CIA-used Reaper or Predator drones, which can roam as high as 50,000 and 25,000 feet above the ground, respectively. The Drone Shield also has the potential to detect "false alarms," buzzing noises that don’t belong to a drone.

Additionally, Franklin said his sound database only has a few registered drone signals. Eventually, he hopes it will be an open-source project which researchers and users can add onto.

Related: Drone industry worries about privacy backlash

"A lot of people have told us through our site that they want to help," Franklin said. "I'm hoping we can work with people with expertise in soundboard design and software programming."

Franklin hasn’t had a problem with funding his idea. He and a friend set up a donation page for Drone Shield on Indiegogo, a crowd-funding website. As of Friday afternoon, Drone Shield had raised more than $5,000 on the site. It had set a goal of $3,500 and still has 44 days left on Indiegogo.

Donors who donate $1 will get a thank you; $10 a sticker, $59 Drone Shield parts with assembly instructions, $69 a fully intact Drone Shield and $1,000 a hand-delivered Drone Shield that Franklin promises to personally test for you. He also says he'll bring you lunch if you donate $1,000.

While no one has given that amount yet, 70 people have claimed the $69 option. Franklin said his goal is to begin shipping Drone Shields by the end of August. He said he's received orders from as far away as Germany and Osaka, Japan.

"Everyone thinks drones will become a huge problem and I want to see if people are interested in what we can design," Franklin said.


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