Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 28 January 2020

World’s airports ill-prepared for drone threat

Airports and governments have failed to confront scale of potential shutdowns by secret flyers

Passengers wait at the North Terminal at London Gatwick Airport on December 20, 2018 after all flights were grounded due to drones flying over the airfield. AFP
Passengers wait at the North Terminal at London Gatwick Airport on December 20, 2018 after all flights were grounded due to drones flying over the airfield. AFP

When a rogue drone grounded 1,000 flights at Britain’s second biggest airport, police fanned out across the countryside of southern England, poking into hedgerows and questioning the residents of a caravan park to try to find out who was responsible.

The traditional police response to a new-age hi-tech problem at Gatwick Airport drew a blank. They failed to find the drone or its operator, despite the arrest of one unfortunate and innocent drone-flying hobbyist and his wife who were swiftly released.

The scramble to find the culprit, a 'chaotic' government response to the crisis and a second shorter shutdown at Europe’s busiest airport, Heathrow, on Tuesday, highlighted how ill-prepared Britain is to tackle the threat from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) around its critical infrastructure.

Analysts said the problem was not limited to the UK but the ease with which operations at the country’s two main airports were brought to a halt opened the authorities to ridicule as they prepared for a new life as “Global Britain” after Brexit.

"People in Europe are sniggering at us, at our Brexit antics, and we've just given them 36 hours of fun laughing at this pantomime," the former head of the British Army, Lord Dannatt, told radio network LBC.

The opposition described the government’s plans to tackle the issue as “chaotic” with its attention focused on leaving the European Union.

“Whether airlines move some of their activities elsewhere depends on how the UK deals with this and the measures they put in place,” said Dr Eric Njoya, a senior lecturer in air transport at the University of Huddersfield. “They have to be effective and efficient.”

Senior industry figures said that Britain’s embarrassment highlighted the “Wild West” nature of the counter-drone sector where claims about the effectiveness of systems are not subject to rigorous international standards.

Authorities have little evidence on which to base the purchase of multi-million-pound security systems – and have consequently kept their hands in their pockets.

The failure of Gatwick to have any effective drone-tracking technology led to airport authorities having little grasp on what was going on in December, the number of drones involved and extended the 36-hour shutdown of the airport, said analysts.

Mixed messages from officials suggested some of the sightings could have been the police’s own drones creating further confusion as the travel plans of 140,000 people were thrown into chaos.


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The mixed use of land around Gatwick – which covers an area of 230 hectares – highlights the scale of the problem for anyone trying to counter the hi-tech intruders. At the eastern end of the runway, fields of sheep fringed by miles of hedges stretch to the horizon. At the western end, anonymous industrial estates that are home to hundreds of allied businesses would make perfect hiding places for drone operators.

“Police forces are absolutely not equipped to deal with this problem,” said Tony Reeves, whose consultancy Level 7 Expertise advises governments on counter-drone technology. “The bad guys wouldn’t be hiding in a ditch – they’d be in a van or a block of flats and they’d move.”

“There’s an enormous cost differential of what you can do to create some kind of impact compared with the costs of doing something about it. It’s several orders of magnitude and the chances of being caught are very low.”

The government announced plans on how it would seek to protect aircraft being grounded by rogue drones including extending the exclusion zone for drones from one to five kilometres from an airport perimeter.

The measures, hastily announced after the Gatwick incident, came in the face of sharp increase in drone incidents reported to air safety officials, and tests that showed that even a small drone could badly damage a commercial airliner. Hours later, a drone shut down Heathrow Airport for an hour.

David Lidington, a minister, said airport operators had to invest more in protection systems against drones from flying. Both Heathrow and Gatwick – Britain’s biggest airports – said they were investing millions to put anti-drone technology in place, raising questions why they had not acted sooner.

Geoff Moore, of Blighter Surveillance Systems which has developed a system with two other UK companies spotted last week at Gatwick, said government and regulators had to put in place rules to force airports to put in place technology to identify and track drones.

“The threats around UAVs have been identified for an awfully long time,” he said.

Airports primarily gather revenue from landing charges and duty free while the bill for any disruption is largely picked up by insurance companies.

“They do the bare minimum. There are no hard and fast standards. In that case, airports say that until somebody tells us what to do, we’re not going to do anything.”

UK legislation has failed to keep up with the threat. It is illegal to interfere with an aircraft – whether a drone or airliner – and any legal change is likely to be fiercely resisted unless by the drone industry. Guernsey, a self-governing island subject to UK legislation, had to change its laws to introduce a radio jamming project to stop drones flying close to its prison.

The Civil Nuclear Constabulary – the police force that defends British nuclear power sites – offered a £400,000 contract last year to protect facilities but warned that UK law prevented the use of electronic counter-drone systems. The tender documents added they could “inadvertently” affect safety systems.

Analysts said many of the multi-million systems on the market are flawed and could become swiftly obsolete by developments in the drone industry.

Some systems rely on bringing down drones by jamming radio frequencies but they would not work in the face of the improved encryption in drone signals. They would already be ineffective if drones were set on a pre-programmed flight path with no radio connection between operator and the craft.

Traditional firearms have limited range to bring down drones and are impractical when operating in densely populated airports. One system using fired nets is limited by the time it takes to reload weapons and limitations on range and effectiveness in tackling a fast-moving small craft.

The US military – which has brought down thousands of drones in northern Iraq – uses a range of systems to bring down ISIS drones, but multiple systems could be too expensive for airports.

Other countries have introduced different measures to tackle the threat. Israel – at the forefront of the counter-drone industry – routinely employs systems at its airports.

Jordan allows only security services to use drones to limit risk, but it effectively bars their potentially valuable commercial use of UAVs for architects and maintenance, said Mr Reeves.

The UAE – which has an eight per cent stake in Gatwick through its sovereign wealth fund – already insists that imported drones have software installed that prevents them from being flown close to its airports in a system known as geo-fencing.

Airport operators are considering pushing for mandatory geo-fencing for drones sold in the UK as well as trying to deter drone flyers by increased patrols around airport perimeters. At Gatwick, patrols pass by every 30 minutes, according to plane spotters who congregate at key spots to snatch photographs of incoming aeroplanes.

“The security is quite tight,” said Duncan Smith, 45, standing with his camera close to the barbed wire-topped perimeter fence on the final approach into Gatwick. “They generally rely on people like us out getting photographs.”

Updated: January 10, 2019 05:31 PM