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Gatwick Airport disruption due to reported drone sightings

As disruption continues at Gatwick Airport, our thoughts are with those passengers who are affected by the reported illegal use of at least one drone within the 1km restriction zone in effect, and the potential safety implications.

This news broke in the late evening of the 19th December (and is still ongoing at the time of publication), when a drone sighting caused dozens of flights to be diverted and departures being postponed or cancelled, for fears over a potential collision between landing or departing air traffic. Subsequent reports of additional sightings throughout the early hours of the morning of the 20th December are leading many to assume that these are the deliberate actions of a malicious person or persons.

Altitude Angel supports the responsible and legal use of drone flying: for fun, or for commercial purposes. Flying at an airport without authorisation poses a serious safety and security risk, potentially harming air traffic and the reputation of the law-abiding drone industry.

Sightings of drones at busy airports are not new and although it is important to remember that most drone users fly responsibly and safely, unfortunatel,y there are those who would try to use the technology to cause disruption or worse, harm.

The limited information available to us at the moment suggests that the use of at least one drone at Gatwick Airport can be considered at this time to be deliberate: the repeated sightings, extended flight time (indicating perhaps the drone operator was prepared with multiple batteries), and of course the very widespread media coverage which would make it difficult to claim the incursion was due to ignorance of the law.

The difficult truth is that there is very little the authorities can do to stop drones taking-off or being flown within sensitive areas, such as airports. We are often asked “why can’t a drone be shot down?”. Setting aside the obvious logistical issues of trying to shoot down a very small target with a very fast-moving object over distance – and remaining on target as the drone moves – only the military are authorised to shoot ballistic weaponry at aircraft, and for good reasons.

Electronic countermeasures are in their infancy and much needs to be done to understand their efficacy. Although “jamming” is a viable option in some cases, a truly ‘rogue’ entity is likely to fly the drone not by remote control radio signal, but instead to pre-program the drone with instructions that it executes using GPS and completely independently of a person on the ground. There would be nothing to “jam”.

Disrupting sensors on board the drone, however, is an area of some interest: a high-power directed radio energy system capable of disrupting sensitive components onboard which help the drone maintain stability might just cause it to land, or it might simply overload it and cause it to crash.

Electronic countermeasures are highly illegal today; the amount of radio energy emitted by them needs extensive testing particularly at areas such as airports which rely heavily on many different electronic sensing and communications capabilities: it would be terrible if the deployment of an electronic ‘weapon’ caused extensive additional disruption.

What about geo-fencing?

Databases embedded in control systems in drones are extremely effective in many scenarios and are standard on board most modern mass-produced drones. However, in some use cases for rogue operations, geo-fences can be rendered ineffective.

Won’t registration help?

It is possible, if the person flying the drone took the time to register. Unless it is a very modern, quite expensive drone, however, it’s unlikely to be detectable while it’s flying though, unless the airport has sophisticated sensing systems in place. And, one must consider the possibility that, if a person is intent on really doing harm with a drone, would he or she register anyway?

In the busier skies imagined of the future, registration may not help identify the rogue drone directly – but it may help indirectly. Imagine a scenario where there are ten drones operating within a few kilometres of the airport where nine are legal and authorised by the airport – a scenario many including airports are seeking to encourage, for example, for on-airfield plane or ‘runway’ inspections: knowing which nine will help authorities identify the one which isn’t, and then to mount a response.

So, what, then, can be done?

The answer starts with visibility.

At Gatwick Airport, as with all airports, safety is the main priority. A sighting effectively triggers a closure. The issue is about ongoing awareness: knowing when it is safe to resume normal airport operations after the initial event; how do the airport authorities know when the risk has passed?

Solutions do exist today which use sensors deployed around a perimeter to detect small moving objects, such as drones. There are sensors which use RADAR, optics (high-powered cameras) and radio-frequency detectors – even some which drone manufacturers provide which can detect the control signals emitted by the drone’s remote controller and can tell authorities precisely where the threat is.

No single sensor is capable of providing the full suite of capability that deploying multiple sensors will provide. However, widely regarded as the most practical is RADAR since it doesn’t rely on cooperation in any capacity by the drone pilot – or the detection of any of its control signals, which a truly malicious actor may simply disable.

On November 21st 2018, Altitude Angel and our partners successfully demonstrated a concept at Manchester Airport, which used data from multiple rogue-drone detection systems (from DJI, which works with control signals for its drones, and Dedrone, which ‘listens’ to any radio control signals), overlaying data from both systems onto a single ‘map’ used by the airport. When combined with a RADAR and optical detection systems around the perimeter, this technology gives airports a 360-degree view of drones in the vicinity – whether they are there legally or more likely, illegally.

An effective safety – and security – response therefore becomes much more likely, because the airport can direct authorities to the precise location of the ‘rogue’ drone (and maybe even it’s pilot, in certain circumstances), removing the danger much more quickly.

Until the precise circumstances are known about the Gatwick Airport drone incursions, it is premature and perhaps quite unhelpful to point out ways in which this might have been avoided. But the aviation industry was built on an amazing culture of learning from others; sharing knowledge and information.

In aviation, ‘situation awareness’ as it is known – the ability to ‘see’ everything around you – is known to help reduce risks considerably, and is a key principal of air traffic control, enabling better operating decisions to be made.

Giving Gatwick Airport – and others – the ability to see every drone around them (just as they do with air traffic) could mean that disruption from future closures is minimalised, and security responses can begin more swiftly and can be better targeted.


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