The Oceanside Police Department recently acquired San Diego County’s first drone killer, an electronic device that can disable a drone in the sky and force it back to the ground. Other area law enforcement agencies also are considering the technology as a way to rein in unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs.

“The purpose is primarily for emergency situations,” Oceanside police Lt. Aaron Doyle said. “It won’t be used when someone complains about a neighbor flying a drone. It’s pretty much for a life-or-death situation, to save lives.”

The need arose in December during a wildfire that destroyed more than 150 structures and forced thousands of residents to flee their homes. During the blaze, someone sent up a drone that forced aerial firefighting operations to cease for more than an hour to avoid a possible collision.

“Shutting down the operations for an hour can be critical to saving lives,” Doyle said. “We started looking for options in case it happened again.”

The search led officers to IXI Technology in Yorba Linda, a company that has been supplying high-tech electronic equipment to the U.S. military for 35 years, and a device it released in 2017. The company agreed to donate one of the drone killers, worth about $30,000, and made a formal presentation to the Police Department at the Oceanside City Council meeting on March 28.

“We are the first law enforcement agency in San Diego County to have this device,” Police Chief Frank McCoy said at the meeting.

The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department also has looked at anti-drone technology and acknowledges a need for the devices, according to Lt. Karen Stubkjaer. 

“We currently are not using this type of equipment, but have not ruled it out for future use,” she said. “Terrorist organizations are utilizing drones as well as organized narcotic groups. This type of technology may be important in the future to safeguard the county jails, courthouses and communities.”

The device, which looks like a gun, can be aimed like a rifle or a shotgun at a drone in the air. The 30-degree field of its beam and its range of almost a half-mile make the target hard to miss.

“In short, it breaks the command and control between the drone and the operator,” said Andy Morabe of IXI Technology.

The airborne drone, depending on how it is programmed, will do one of three things. It will either return to its “home,” which is the place it was launched, hover in place or go straight to the ground and land.

The company’s anti-drone device was first used by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to protect the 2017 Rose Parade, Morabe said. Since then, it has been used at a number of large public events around Los Angeles.

The device can stop almost any of the hundreds of models of remotely controlled aircraft that are available, Morabe said.

When a new drone is encountered that the device can’t defeat, the anti-drone software will be rewritten to include the new model and an update will be issued within days, he said. Operators can download the update, just like any new or updated app for a phone or computer.

Advancing technology and lower prices have led to a proliferation of drones in recent years, from the small ones with cameras sold online and in department stores to large ones used by the military to carry weapons. Drones have been used by criminals to drop contraband into prison yards, and by drug cartels to monitor the U.S.-Mexico border, Morabe said.

U.S penitentiaries, the Border Patrol, and the military are all interested in the anti-drone technology, he said. Marines at Camp Pendleton trained with the device just last month, according to a story by Reuters news service.

Law enforcement agencies across the United States are rapidly adopting the use of drones.

Officers are working to become certified by the Federal Aviation Administration and to establish local policies for when drones and the anti-drone device can or should be used.

©2018 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.