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Photo Courtesy of Volkswagen

Case Study: Eyes on the Sky

It sounds like something out of a movie. A spy uses a drone to swoop in and take photos of a top-secret project in the hope of gaining a competitive edge before it goes to market, or sells a photo to the highest bidder for publication in Car and Driver magazine.

But that’s the reality that Volkswagen deals with on a regular basis when it takes prototype vehicles out for testing. Prototype vehicles, also known as concept cars, showcase new styling or new technology that Volkswagen plans to release to market in one or two years. They are some of the company’s most valuable assets.

Volkswagen, headquartered in Wolfsburg, Germany, has several test sites where it takes prototypes. These sites are within a protected perimeter, but they are outside—which means that someone in a plane or using a drone could view the vehicle and take photos of it, compromising the security of the prototype. Volkswagen also takes its prototype vehicles to exhibitions and international meetings where they are displayed to a select audience, but not the general public.

“Quite a few times we had drones fly into the scenery and take pictures of the show cars,” says Michael Schmidt, CSO of Volkswagen Group. Security would attempt to identify the drone pilot’s location but was not always successful, and pilots could get away with photos of the vehicles.

It needed a better solution to address the problem, so five years ago Volkswagen began a market analysis of anti-drone systems. However, the company did not find a system on the market at the time that addressed all its needs.

“We needed a mobile solution because we don’t have a risk 24/7—just when a prototype is in the field,” Schmidt explains. “We could also rent it to other companies or use it for meetings—like our annual meeting.”

Volkswagen ended up partnering with German companies ESG, Diehl, and Rohde & Schwarz to create its mobile drone detection system, GUARDION, similar to systems that were used to detect drones during the G20 Summit in Hamburg and a state visit by U.S. President Barack Obama.

Along with cameras, the system has sensors and provides radar and radio analysis to verify the detection of a drone in the immediate area. Another reason Volkswagen chose this system was because it had the lowest possible false alarm rate and included analytics to filter out flying birds.

The GUARDION solution was tailored to the company’s needs and placed in a Volkswagen Crafter van with an attached trailer, making it mobile. The Crafter van model is ideal for the system installation because it provides enough space for two working stations inside the van for security staff. The stations give staff a map-based overview of the landscape that the system monitors in real time via intuitive software.

When Volkswagen has a prototype vehicle out on its track, it will park the system in the area to detect any nearby drones. If one is identified, the security staff in the van will contact Volkswagen’s internal guard service to help determine the drone pilot’s location.

Volkswagen’s security staff does not have jurisdiction off corporate property, so they will inform the local police service who will arrest the pilot and collect the drone. Volkswagen will then work with the police to obtain and confiscate any images taken by the drone.

“It’s a partnership between the guard services and the police force,” Schmidt says, adding that Volkswagen has held joint exercises with local authorities to aid this partnership effort.

To ensure that the system was working as efficiently as possible, Volkswagen required—as part of its contract—ESG to provide training to the company’s general security staff.

“One of the tasks for the supplier was to have a very simple system, because we can’t train many specialists,” Schmidt says. “It must be part of the day-to-day business. It should not only be guard services with a technical background who are trained to use the system.”

In addition to monitoring test sites, Volkswagen has also used the mobile system to monitor two premiere league soccer matches. Along with its vehicle business, Volkswagen owns a soccer club and is responsible for its security. Recently, soccer stadiums have considered the potential for increasing threats from drones, ranging from taking unauthorized photographs to flying explosives into a controlled area.

To prevent this from happening, Volkswagen has deployed its mobile system to monitor the airspace near Volkswagen Arena in Wolfsburg and at a stadium in Berlin. This required additional partnerships with the respective local police forces, but Schmidt says both deployments were successful.

Following the debut of the mobile system in November 2018, Volkswagen is exploring other ways to use drone and anti-drone technology—such as protecting its facilities.

In Wolfsburg, Volkswagen is testing tethered drones: drones with cameras attached to a building via a Kevlar rope that connects to the local network. When an alarm signaling a perimeter breach is triggered, the drone launches to inspect the situation and allow security staff to determine if additional response, such as sending a security officer out, is needed.

Tethering the drones instead of allowing them to fly freely helped Volkswagen secure the necessary license to operate the drones on its property.

“It’s not easy to get a license to fly a drone because it can crash and hurt people,” Schmidt says. “We’re allowed to fly the drone on a cable because we know if it crashes it will crash on our property.”

In addition to acting as a safety feature, the tether connects the drone directly to the building’s electrical system. This ensures that the drone is always fully powered and makes it easier to transmit footage from its camera.

Volkswagen is also exploring using drone technology at its manufacturing plants, including in Mexico where patrols and video feeds are restricted. The company is currently piloting an autonomous drone system to conduct routine inspections.

“It takes over patrol tasks, gives an overview of the site, and delivers valuable information via live video feed about routine patrols or incidents,” Schmidt says. “Based on these technologies, future perimeter protection systems will be developed which will ensure greater flexibility and can be used depending on the security situation.”

For More Information: ESG: Defence + Public Security,