The latest incident of drones flying into conflict with aircraft at Gatwick Airport has noisily ushered in a new era for aviation security, one that Gatwick never fully expected to happen.
Over a year ago I raised serious concerns with senior law enforcement in the UK about the potential for sustained drone incursions into areas such as Gatwick.
The warnings were ignored and there was little I, or anyone else raising those same concerns, could do to bring more awareness to the threat. To raise it publicly risked precipitating the inevitable and being accused of putting airports at risk.
Since the recent events in Gatwick, it’s now obvious to everyone how vulnerable major airports are to the threat of disruption from drones.
Time and again the question has been asked, how can a drone bring a major airport to a grinding halt so easily? The answer is very simple and two-fold.
One of the main factors is the misconception about the danger drones pose to aviation which has been promoted by organisations such as the British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA). For years they have used media events and press releases to caution that drones are likely to bring down a commercial airliner and kill 100’s of people.
This is now the common view of the general public and one that forces airports into closing runways when drones are sighted in their vicinity. The vast majority of the media all too readily believe the urban myth that drones will, at some point, cause a 737 to crash in a ball of flames killing everyone on board. It’s inevitable, or so they say.
No matter how many research papers are published showing that drone collisions do not cause airliners to explode in mid-air or come crashing to the ground the public perception remains unchanged. All serious, independent research (such as the FAA paper) concludes that drone strikes cause similar, albeit worse, damage to aircraft structures as bird strikes.
Don’t misunderstand this point, it isn’t saying that drones don’t cause serious damage. If ingested into a jet engine it will cause the engine to fail, just as a bird would. The main point is that planes are designed to withstand these impacts and pilots regularly train and prepare for such circumstances.
Whereas BALPA plays down the risks of birds hitting planes they actively play up the risks of drones.
In this article about the dangers of birds hitting planes, BALPA spokesperson Steve Landells states, “Losing one engine is not going to cause an aircraft to crash because they are designed to fly with one engine down”.
He claims bird strikes are “rarely dangerous”, adding, “In my flying career I have experienced 10 bird strikes, none of which caused any significant damage. On half the occasions, in fact, due to the small size of the birds, I was not aware that I had hit one until inspecting the aircraft after landing.”
Yet in a BALPA press release about a drone near miss, Landells stated, “Yet another incident at Gatwick involving drones shows that the threat of drones being flown near manned-aircraft must be addressed before we see a disaster.”, “We believe a collision…has the potential be catastrophic.”
It’s this stoking of the flames that’s created a situation where every time a drone is seen in the vicinity of an airport the operations have to be suspended. If they had to do the same every time a bird was seen near the airport it would be impossible to function.
In order to close an airport, all someone has to do is fly a drone near to it and no-one is prepared to continue operations for fear that the drone may cause a plane to crash. If you want to cause disruption and economic damage you just have to do that often enough, as was the case in Gatwick.
The second reason why it’s so easy for a drone to stop an airport from running is that the approach to dealing with the problem comes from the wrong angle. It’s focussed on trying to stop the drone, which is very difficult to do.
Most countermeasures available to commercial airports are weak and some are downright ludicrous.
The main fault with them is that they simply don’t work to stop a concerted drone incursion, as Gatwick discovered to their cost.
The best way to stop a drone is to use specialist equipment to jam the control frequency or block GPS signals. This is fraught with legal and health and safety issues which is why its use is usually in battlefield scenarios.
These systems, such as the AUDS system, cost between £1million-£3million each, depending on the manufacturer, and the downside is that they’re usually not licensed for use by commercial organisations. To deploy one at Gatwick meant escalating the incident and calling in the military.
Even when deployed it still doesn’t stop the problem, it just stops the drone, leaving the offender free to flee. Provided you’ve set yourself up with a few disposable drones you can afford to launch one, have it downed, and keep repeating the process every few hours.
For a couple of thousand pounds, it means a terrorist can create disruption, capture the attention of the world media, and still escape with minimal risk.
The present situation is therefore untenable. Whether or not the Gatwick incident was terror-related it has opened up a new path of attack on airports with little cost or technical skill required.
The current solutions appear to be either a hardening of laws surrounding the sale and distribution of drones and/or the exemption of airports from legislation relating to jamming drones. Neither one, however, will work to stop this threat.
Terrorists are inconvenienced by prohibition but it won’t stop them from gaining drones. Technological solutions such as geo-fencing or app-based requirements to identify the user and drone before it can be launched will always be vulnerable to hacks and workarounds.
Widespread jamming and GPS blocking at airports will also have unwanted side-effects. There are welfare issues with staff being exposed to high power jamming signals, disruption to local residents and airport operations that depend upon the same frequencies and GPS. Again there will be hacks and workarounds to modify the frequency ranges, so it will continue to be a cat and mouse game with no final end.
There is no way to stop the threat and only when that point is accepted can we move onto an effective way to mitigate and manage it.
Acceptance & Mitigation
Airports will need to accept the fact that drones will continue to operate in their vicinity and enter their airspace. Once accepted they can move onto developing effective strategies to manage that risk.
It’s my view that airports can continue to function with a rogue drone in the vicinity. This ability depends entirely upon the way that the airport manages that risk.
The first step to take when a drone is reported would be to launch the airport’s own drone. This gets an asset on the same operating level as the threat.
Once airborne the airport drone needs to position itself in such a way that the incoming drone is aware of its presence. The reaction of the incoming drone then indicates whether it’s on a pre-programmed mission or under the direct control of an operator. Once established this information helps guide later decisions.
The airport drone now gives live information to the control tower which helps to inform them of the rogue drone’s approximate location, height, heading and speed. It also allows tactical decisions to be made if a payload is detected.
The airport’s drone would function to track and monitor the rogue drone which enables airfield managers to rapidly adjust the dynamic risk assessments and decide whether to continue or suspend operations.
It also allows ground units to begin containment operations and secure the area where the drone is either returning to home or ditching. This enables the operator to be caught, or if the drone is ditching it enables rapid recovery of the drone for forensic examination.
Most drones have an effective battery life of around 20-30 minutes. This reduces in situations where it’s travelling at higher speeds or in stronger wind conditions.
In a single incursion, the rogue drone would find it difficult to stay on target for longer than 20 minutes.
Live confirmation from the airport drone that the rogue drone is out of the area or grounded enables a faster resumption of operations, had they been suspended.
In such circumstances, I would expect the airport to be operating a drone with a similar specification to the Aeryon Labs Skyranger R60 which when operated as a pair or more can automatically replace one another in the air to maintain sustained operations.
Most drone incursions will be accidental or mischievous and when met with a drone response and containment protocol will result in the successful apprehension of the operator. Those that are of a more serious nature whilst not being prevented will be managed by such a protocol and give law enforcement the best opportunity at apprehension and evidential recovery.
Furthermore, the impact on airport operations will be kept to a minimum and has the potential to allow runways to remain active throughout, depending on the severity of the attack.
In my view, this is the most practical and cost-effective solution to the problem commercial aviation now faces from concerted drone incursions.
Operations Director, Clear Vision Security Ltd
email: [email protected]