German telco sends in drones to mark cables

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German telco sends in drones to mark cables
Quadcopter drone. Photo: Sean Gallup.
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Crims cop a load of DNA.

Faced with an increasing amount of theft of its copper telephone lines, German telco incumbent Deutsche Telekom has taken a novel approach: it is marking the cables with artificial DNA, with the help of small drones.

In the past year alone, Deutsche Telekom saw 2,700 incidents of cable theft as copper had become increasingly valuable over the past years, reaching US$7,300 (A$7,775) per ton and higher. The thefts not only caused monetary loss, but interrupted services for customers and could potentially be life-threatening to people.

Losses for 2012 reached 17 million euro (A$24.5 million) and Deutsche Telekom called in forensics specialists ATG Sitec to mark the copper cables with artificial DNA so as to prevent theft.

To apply the paint on existing cabling strung on poles, Deutsche Telekom employed remote controlled quadrocopter micro drones from German company AirRotorMedia. The telco held a demonstration of the marking technique in the German federal state of Brandenburg two days ago.

Source: Reuters video

Poles that carry the marked cables are labelled with signs warning potential thieves that the copper wires have had artificial DNA applied and that it will rub off, making the stolen goods unsellable.

The artificial DNA comprises tiny, 400-micron sized flakes of nickel mixed into a special varnish. Invisible to the eye, the flakes are engraved with unique numbers that can only be read with a microscope, and which together with the paint are registered in a database for identification.

When thieves come into contact with the paint, their hands and clothes light up "like a Christmas tree" under ultraviolet light, Deutsche Telekom said. The two-stage identification with the paint and uniquely numbered nickel flakes allows the telco to not only demonstrate that theft took place, but also the exact area.

As the paint penetrates the cable sheath, the artificial DNA remains even if the copper wires are burnt, Deutsche Telekom said. A single molecule is sufficient for identification. The forensic paint also survives snow, ice and rain. 

The marking programme started in May this year. Deutsche Telekom has not revealed the cost of painting its copper cables.


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