This drone has been outfitted with an anti-drone net gun. (Photo: FliteTest/Youtube)

Though they look like something out of a superhero comic book, net launchers and net guns are devices that exist in the real world. They’re mainly used to humanely trap wild animals, or, in some cases, humans. Lately, they’ve taken on a new role: as a weapon in the fight against commercial drones flying in unauthorized airspace, be that over a classified military base or above a Russian ren faire.

Net guns are exactly what they sound like: guns (or similar devices) that fire out a net. While this may sound like something a 10-year-old would make up for Batman to carry around, the technology and industry of net guns has been growing for years. According to Travis Peters, owner of Net Gun Store, one of the leading retailers of net guns, the non-lethal projectiles have been growing in popularity since around 2006.

A standard net gun from the Net Gun Store. (Photo: Net Gun Store/Used with Permission)

Homemade or commercial, most net guns work on the same mechanics. The nets that are fired from the guns are usually attached to four small weights at the corners that are propelled from the device using compressed air. The body of the net has to be carefully loaded so that when the weights are fired from the gun, they drag the unfurling net behind them, opening it in the process. Once the net hits its target, the weights naturally swing around, ensnaring whatever the net was fired towards.

Net guns have become a non-lethal alternative to capture, as there is no significant risk to the target, even from the weights. “It will sting for sure! But nothing serious,” says Peters about getting hit with one of the weights. “They are covered in rubber.”

The guns come in a variety of shapes and sizes. The “Standard Net Gun Package” at the Net Gun Store offers a net-firing device that looks like a big, heavy-duty flashlight. This wand-style gun shoots high-tensile nylon nets ranging from six-foot-by-six-foot meshes good for capturing small birds to 10-by-10 nets that can entrap an adult human. There are also net guns that look more like rifles with four barrels—one for each weight—that are used for capturing larger animals.

“By far, my largest demographic is animal rescue,” says Peters. “Our net guns are able to help animal rescue/control companies capture wounded and dangerous animals they normally wouldn’t be able to help.”

The latest use for net guns, however, targets technology rather than wildlife. “About 10 percent of our sales go to law enforcement, anti-drone campaigns and security companies,” says Peters. His company is getting more and more requests to attach net guns to drones for the purpose of capturing other drones that are flying around where they shouldn’t be. Since most commercially available drones take flight using some form of helicopter technology, nets are an ideal capture tool, the rotor blades almost instantly being caught up in the mesh.

Using nets instead of more violent means to take down drones also has other advantages. “I get a lot of inquiries from people who have experienced drones flying on to their properties,” says Peters. “It kind of freaks them out so they want a way to stop them without using a real gun. Also, when using the net gun, it allows the user to capture and recover any video recording device that may have been used.” 

Peters’ store is far from the only one to have discovered that the natural enemy of a drone is a net. Other companies are developing new net-firing technologies aimed specifically at using nets against rogue drones. Some, like the Theiss UAV Solutions’ “Excipio” system, are focusing on how best to attach a net gun straight to drone, so that it can be fired at an opposing drone at any altitude. Then there’s the dystopian “Skywall” system equipped with bulky sci-fi bazookas and turrets that look like they were taken straight out of a video game. You have the fleet of drones used by the Tokyo police, which hang a net from their undercarriage and fly it into other drones. Boston law enforcement were even given net guns to police drones flying over the Boston Marathon in 2015.

Drones might be the future, but not even they can escape an attack from a well-thrown net. Just something to remember, should your neighbor buy a buzzing little quadcopter and hover it outside your window.