back to article 'Angry Bird' netflinger projectile brings down drug ultralights

US air force boffins have developed a net-flinging weapon dubbed "Angry Bird", for the purpose of bringing down drug-smuggling ultralight aircraft crossing the Mexican border without using lethal force. Aviation Week reports on the remarkable development, which was achieved as part of the 2011 Commander's Challenge competition …


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  1. Slipgate

    I can see Rovio's patent lawyers gearing up for this one!

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      Wouldn't it be Trademark?

      Also, I'm not sure if a nickname or codename for something can be legally pursued. The Tegra 3, for example, from Nvidia is code named the Kal-El but I don't think DC could sue them for it.

      Could be wrong of course - IANNAL and all.

  2. Miek

    Unless I have missed something, surely bringing down an aircraft with an actual occupant would result in some form of crash. How is that non-lethal? I get that they are not using any explosive devices but deliberately crashing an aircraft?

    1. David Barrett

      Maybe the engine doesnt need to spin for the plane to glide?


      Better than my idea of a snake catapult...

      1. Armando 123

        Snakes on a plane? Come on, who'd ever believe that!

    2. Stoneshop


      tend to be able to glide quite well without additional power. In fact, quite a few of them are some sort of deltawing glider with a small engine attached. Larger aircraft (up to 747's, as demonstrated by BA flight 9) don't quite drop straight down either if their engine(s) cut out, unless it suffers structural damage in the process and/or control is lost because there's no power to the controls.

      Tossing a net into the propeller of an ultralight is pretty unlikely to make it crash.

  3. DrXym

    Without harm?

    I suggest flinging a net at an airborne vehicle stands a very good chance of doing harm. Do I care that a drug smuggler hits the ground because a chunk of net has snarled his propeller into the fuselage? Not really, just saying.

    Anyway, the countermeasure for the drug smugglers is to put the propeller at the back (to push the plane) or encase the propeller in chicken wire so it can't be snarled up.

  4. David Evans

    How long before...

    ...the smugglers start using unmanned UAVs to send drugs across the border themselves? Its surely only a matter of time.

    1. Leedos

      The cartels are using catapults, ramps and remote control aircraft to get drugs the short distance across the border. Full size UAVs are probably too expensive at this point. The drug cartels will try ANYTHING one can dream up, but they don't like losing car, planes or money. Of the shelf RC aircraft are doing the job and are cheap. I'm sure they are thinking of ways to increase the payload.

      I like this K.I.S.S approach.

  5. Graham Bartlett

    Drone is much better plan

    The problem is making sure you hit the prop. If the guy is at 50ft and you hit the pilot with a softball-sized lump with enough kinetic energy to comfortably reach 1000ft, chances are pretty good that it won't be "non-lethal". Ditto if you hit the wing - the net-projectile could easily punch straight through, which ain't good for flying. And ditto if you manage to snag the lines, so the pilot no longer has control.

    To be fair, these are not nice people, so I'm not overly bothered what happens to them. But if they're happy with lethal force, then they might as well quit fannying about with nets and just use a rifle.

  6. Jolyon Ralph

    You would think that a 30mm chain gun would be more effective

    and a better deterrent.

    1. Tom 13

      They are, but that excites

      the coddling classes too much when run on the nightly news.

  7. paulc


    I noticed there were no dummy pilots on those remote controlled ultra-lights... To be a proper demo, they should have had instrumented crash test dummies strapped in to the seats so that the damage to the pilot could be properly assessed...

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      The first few real-life dummy pilots will provide that information without having to sacrifice a useful crash-test dummy.

  8. paulc


    the "bad guys" can simply mod the prop to give it a guard to prevent the net from entangling the blades...

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Behold the wonders of "humane-ity" spin.

    Non-lethal, right? Only, as already noted, there's not even a dummy in sight. Impact measurements? Even a seismometer to rate the landing? No?

    Then it's all good and well, but you can't honestly claim this to be "less-lethal". Not because it's not obviously lethal, but because you haven't actually measured, nevermind tested with a large enough sampling of real pilots. Because somebody might get hurt. But who cares, those Mexicados aren't really human anyway, or at least they're all druggie illegals. Amirite or amirite?

    So it's no more than a PR excercise, and it is that way because this bunch have the desire to seem "less lethal" but not the will to properly check that their claims are true. This is, by the by, a common theme in much of this "research", actually happenings where various beltway bandits try and strut their stuff for another piece of that yummie usgovt pie. Down to, get this, the supplier of the robo-ultralights. It's not science though. Not even social science.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      Are you worried that this will increase the price of the contraband you need?

    2. Stoneshop

      If there's a person at the controls

      he or she will, as a matter of self-preservation, tend to try to keep control of the aircraft and put it down on the ground in such a way that it can be walked away from. Unmanned drones lack this feature, so simply noting how gently one goes *bonk* when it fails to not hit the ground is of little interest.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      on the other hand

      at what point is a "Mexicado" ultralight crossing a national border in defiance of chase aircraft, radio calls or navigation aids EVER legitimate or non criminal? With a top speed of maybe 50 kts on a good day, service ceiling of 1000 feet, and lots of desert to "accidentally" cross? Or over large cities where such aircraft are forbidden to be flown by law? Or the fact that such expensive toys are out of reach of the majority of Mexican nationals who live anywhere near the border, and those who CAN afford them are fully aware of the navigational requirements in their area to avoid problems of international law?

      Nice to try to toss in some accusation of racism there. I mean, it's not like everyone doesn't have a flying car and it's so easy to just accidentally wander into foreign soil. It must be an evil gringo plot to shoot down all those navigationally challenged Mexican ultralight sport pilots! Derp!

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Never legitimate

        I think you missed the point. By a mile. And it was exactly that I was pointing out, so congratulations. It doesn't matter that it's intended for taking down people who're already clearly in violation of entire lawbooks. Bringing that up is hypocrite in the sense that everyone's innocent until proven guilty, at least that's what the justice system says even if plenty of the LE supposedly holding up the system obviously don't believe in it, so assumptions there mean you're turning the whole thing into a warzone. If you want that, fine, declare war, you know you want to. Though even then you might want to catch'em alive if only so you can ask'em who their buddies are. You know, policing as usual. If you think that has something to do with racism, well, it wasn't me that put it there. I was talking about the legal niceties of Law Enforcement, lack thereof in practice.

        But this little self-congratulatory party of vendors here aren't declaring war. Instead a bunch of beltway bandits are making a show of their human-friendly goodness, honest, without actually doing any such thing. Few companies would try and market a better cattleprod without ever having tried the bloody thing on anything but a robot cow dummy. Yet now that it involves humans, guess what happens? Nobody is staking /their/ lives showing that these things really work as advertised and don't stand a high chance of killing the pilot anyway. Meaning that any and all claims there are backed by, well, robots, nothing more. They're void, useless marketese, dishonest at best and might turn out deadly to boot. Then again, it's been said that Americans[tm] just don't understand irony, so I suppose you can't be expected to understand why this doublespeak is doubleplusungood, eh.

  10. Matt Bryant Silver badge

    "Yeah, good smuggler, just fly straight and level for me...."

    I assume neither option was tested against unco-operative and manouvering targets? I'd love to see how they get close enough to ram a prop against a dodging target, especially if it's Reaper-like remote-by-video piloting, AKA like looking through a straw. And the net-launcher would require the target to also be relatively co-operative as it would be easy to watch the launching vehicle approach, then manouvere the minute they got in range.

    A more realistic deterent would be the chopper with a radio, loudspeaker and a chain-gun: "This is US Border Patrol helicopter Welcome One to unidentified ultralight, land your aircraft and surrender immediately, you have one minute to comply!"....... BRRRRAAAP! "Welcome One to Control, splash one! Best send out a meatwagon to sort out the dope from what's left of the dope."

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Netting your problems...

    How about a pursuing aircraft (Police chopper or airplane) just dropping a net around the plane like you would a net a tiger.

    Smaller aircraft have emergency parachutes for vertical landing... What i am picturing here is what if the druggies planes got entangled by something similar and becomes "cargo" of the enforcing aircraft.

    Nah, forget it, I'm still with the rotating 30mm barrels of fun.

    But I saw a toy chopper that could carry 45kg of cargo. It could be a video camera, it could be a small kid, it could be an M60 with lots and lots and lots of ammo.

    One can dream...

  12. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge


    Does DARPA really think that majority of drugs are brought into the US by ninjas on stealth ultralights ? Have they been reading too many Tom Clancy books?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      What do YOU know about it?

      What do YOU know about it, eh?

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    why bother with the hippy dippy non lethal spin?

    if you have an aircraft crossing the border, you intercept and follow it in to the designated airfield of order. If the aircraft is an ultralight crossing a national border, you motion it to land at the next available parking lot. If it is flying at night with lights off, NVG equipped to the pilot, and it is crossing the border..only the worst California lawyer would try to say there is some "accidental" reason for this activity.

    I can understand where the misplaced sympathy and failed loyalty towards foot traffic'd illegals comes from. But when it comes to aircraft which have already Federal and international recognition, we should handle the border the same way the Mexicans or the rest of South/Central America and most of the world does. Warn them off with radios, spotlights, and/or loudspeakers on chase aircraft. If the pilot does not respond, shoot them down with extreme prejudice. It is the pilot's responsibility to be aware of location, aware of no-fly zones, and able to communicate with other aircraft-even for ultralights. Spend the money on large bore shotguns or WP tracer rounds instead.

    Bottom line: There is NO excuse for ANY aircraft to be in a situation where it should be fired upon with a "less lethal" round. A legitimate "navigation error" will respond favorably to methods to contact and should not be engaged with any force. Illegitimate aircraft are weapons to be destroyed if they fail to comply.

  14. JDX Gold badge

    In civilised nations...

    ... you don't simply kill people for breaking the law. It's not RoboCop.

  15. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

    According the US GAO

    Last year they intercepted 1.5M kg of drugs entering by land, 24,700kg by sea and 12,000Kg by air.

    Since that 12,000kg includes all the stuff coming in as commercial air cargo, stuff hidden on passengers and all the small (and not so small) private planes used by smugglers - it suggests that the amount carried by ninja stealth radar avoiding ultralights might be a bit negligible and the whole project is rather more a cool toy and grants program rather than a serious effort.

    1. alwarming

      RE: "e whole project is rather more a cool toy and grants program"

      That's the only sane explanation, really!

  16. theAltoid

    This is necessary

    Because the DEA has a $2B budget to spend, and like all budgets if they don't spend it, they lose it. It will never be effective at stopping the inflow of drugs, but neither is the DEA despite a 40 year old "War on Drugs".

    I can get any recreational drug any time of the day in any city in America, except alcohol and cigarettes. I love prohibition.

  17. Graham Bartlett

    Crash test dummies fail

    Nice to see a whole lot of people here whose only experience of flight is as Easyjet cargo.

    News flash folks - planes *GLIDE*. (Even big ones. Look up "Gimli glider". Or hell, there was the Hudson river landing just recently.) So long as the plane and pilot are intact when the engine dies, and the pilot is halfway competent, then the pilot is almost certainly going to survive the landing. Whether he survives any length of time in the desert is another matter, but it's fairly safe to assume that if you're close enough to take the plane down then you're close enough to find him.

    Hence my worry about shooting them down with net projectiles that can go up to 1000ft. That'd punch a hole through a wing or seriously injure the pilot. The guy might not be dead in the air, but he almost certainly will be after impact. The point of *ONLY* disabling the prop is that it becomes an engine-off landing and not an impact.

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