Safely Handling Drones – S&T Has an App for That!


Keeping Department of Homeland Security (DHS) personnel safe on the job is a crucial part of the Science and Technology Directorate’s (S&T) mission.

Nearly every day, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents come across drones that may have been used to facilitate the movement of illicit drugs or people across the southern border.

These drones usually carry smuggled narcotics and often contain surveillance cameras; however, they could easily be modified to carry other threats or hazards.

Drone Swarm

So how do CBP agents handle such devices without harming themselves or others? Current procedures for safe handling of electronics appear in training manuals, but these printed materials are bulky, inconvenient to carry, and often outdated. The new S&T-funded Safe Handling and Collection of Electronics (SHAKE) app, however, allows CBP agents to access the necessary information on their government-furnished mobile phones or tablets while in the field.

S&T worked closely with CBP’s Air and Marine Operations

S&T worked closely with CBP’s Air and Marine Operations (AMO) to deliver this unique solution, as AMO has spent several years developing procedures to safely and effectively handle air and maritime drone platforms. S&T also partnered with other domestic and international law enforcement agencies that have subject matter expertise on the rogue use of drones.

“The SHAKE app originated as a simulated training framework to assist operators in identifying downed drones and training them in executing safe handling protocols,” said Dr. Syed Mohammad, Director of S&T’s Modeling and Simulation Technology Center (MS-TC).

“SHAKE now has evolved to become a robust operational tool.”

Using the SHAKE app, personnel in the field can determine the make and model of a device, if it has been modified, and whether it is carrying an unauthorized payload. The app details steps to keep CBP agents safe, secure the surrounding area, protect people nearby, and collect the device safely. Officers can use the app in any operational environment since all information is available to the user offline as well. By enhancing situational awareness, the SHAKE app allows CBP agents to perform their duties as safely and efficiently as possible.

“This has been a great opportunity for S&T to work closely with CBP to develop a technology that will change the way their agents respond to a downed drone and potentially save the lives of agents and civilians,” said S&T SHAKE Program Manager Saadat Laiq.

Another advantage of the SHAKE app is the ability to share information rapidly and in near real time. The app contains a report-writing feature that allows images of a captured drone to be attached. This capability will help all of DHS and its partners quickly understand this rapidly evolving threat, identify trends, and predict future threats. 

Instead of taking days or weeks from the time of an incident to when people learn about it, SHAKE cuts the time down to hours and even minutes for mass-notification of a drone event.

Since the app’s initial development, other DHS components and government agencies, as well as international partners, have expressed interest in SHAKE for their respective needs. These emerging interagency partnerships speak to S&T’s success in maximizing return on investment.  With extensibility and reusability in mind, SHAKE has been developed in a way that allows current and potential future partner agencies to adapt the capability with minimal modifications.

AMO Supervisory Aviation Enforcement Agent Erik Modisett said, “For us to have worked with S&T to develop the SHAKE app, and now these other agencies are going to benefit from it for low to no cost, I don’t think you can find a better example of how DHS should be doing business.”

S&T will work on R&D efforts with the other interested DHS operational components to fit SHAKE into their needs, ensure interoperability, and expand collaboration, and will conduct beta testing with CBP over the next two months. The app is expected to be available across CBP within six months.