A Most Unusual Response

Following the publication of an article I wrote in SUAS News, A Vacuum of Silence, I received a tremendous amount of support and thanks from members of the drone community. It seems that I’d voiced feelings that many were experiencing, namely a frustration with a lack of support from ARPAS-UK and DJI.

One response, which I received today, stood out however for all the wrong reasons. The chairman of ARPAS-UK, Gavin Wishart emailed me to express his displeasure about my article.

I’m accustomed to people objecting to my views and opinions and have no issue with disagreement at all. I find that open, honest dialogue conducted in a respectful manner is a great way to clarify misconceptions and move a subject forward. Unfortunately, it’s not a sentiment that Gavin appears to share.

In his email, he claimed the article was an “ill-informed”, “…lazy swipe at the Association [ARPAS-UK]”. Then he proceeded to suggest I join the organisation.

In terms of membership drives, it’s not the best approach to start out with insults, but I appreciated his reaching out and responded to give him the opportunity to clarify his position and explain why he felt it was ill-informed.

In doing so I hoped he would be able to give me examples of situations where ARPAS-UK had defended drone users by questioning the police response and the hysterical media narrative. Instead his response was short:

“I take the view that the media narrative is usaully [sic] ill-informed, yours included.

You clearly didn’t hear what I said on national television”

I expect to be trolled by bored keyboard warriors, but for the chairman of ARPAS-UK to respond in such an unprofessional and childish manner was deeply disappointing.

If I was a member of ARPAS-UK paying between £180 – £960 a year I’d be reconsidering my association with them. If their chairman can do nothing other than hurl insults rather than address serious concerns about their organisational approach to the industry it speaks to the character of ARPAS-UK.

It’s a shame that they didn’t speak out in the days following Gatwick to defend drones and question the hysteria that led to the closure of the airport. It’s absurd though, that their chairman feels the need to engage in a petty spat via email rather than learn from their mistakes and listen to the many voices that are frustrated with their passive response to the incessantly negative media narrative surrounding drones and Gatwick.

If anything Gavin Wishart’s emails have reaffirmed my views on the lack of ARPAS-UK to adequately defend or protect the UK drone industry.

 

A Vacuum of Silence

“In space, no-one can hear you scream”, but this wasn’t space, it was the UK post-Gatwick, and there were plenty of opportunities to scream, but for some reason, none of the major stakeholders in the drone industry were doing much other than laying down and rolling over.

Initially their response was as per their usual modus operandi, reminders about safety and the dangers of flying drones illegally. All good stuff for the media which lapped it up as soundbites to fit the narrative that Gatwick was the result of moronic drone users with no concern for public safety.

This slotted neatly into their rapidly woven pieces which also included statements from commercial aviation advocates such as BALPA. The overall narrative was a condemnation of drone users, the need for tougher regulation, better education, and harsher penalties. Anything to stop the cause of the problem – drones.

As time went on it became apparent that many, if not all of the sightings were false positives. Some people reported the police drones, some people reported helicopters as drones, and so on. The police were under increasing pressure, especially after arresting an innocent couple in a very public operation, which did nothing to try and shield their identities from the hungry media.

All the while there was silence from the major industry players. The only voices being heard in defence of drones were often from individuals or small businesses. What happened to DJI? What happened to ARPAS-UK?

Drone users had done their bit. They’d paid these people to buy their products or be members of their trade associations. The onus was now on the manufacturers and trade bodies to stand up for them, to defend the industry, but nothing stirred, not even a mouse.

There was a very brief window when public opinion was moving against the police’s handling of the matter. They were starting to question why Gatwick had closed. Was it an overreaction? What were the real dangers of drones? Were there even any drones?

Jeremy Vine was audible yet both DJI and ARPAS-UK weren’t. Why?

One of the principal jobs of the manufacturers and the bodies that represent the end users is to defend the market, yet both DJI and ARPAS-UK were absent.

PR is not difficult, reputation management is a tried and trusted approach to situations such as these and everyone has known that at some point it’s going to be required. Everyone knew, yet no one in the industry was ready or willing to step up to the plate.

Whilst issuing one press release or taking part in a few interviews is the baseline it’s not enough. You don’t control the narrative, it comes down to editorial decisions far beyond the control of the journalists you’re speaking to, so you have to implement a more direct approach to begin to take some control.

This is usually through the form of videos issued through your own media channels – Twitter, YouTube etc. Articles on your own website. Newspaper adverts taken out to promote your narrative as these are beyond editorial control. Handshakes behind closed doors don’t have any effect.

What was the reason for this absence? Most likely it’s because they weren’t prepared to defend the industry, they most likely hold the same views as the media. They may have assumed it was a moronic drone user damaging their industry and felt it wasn’t their responsibility to defend.

In my view there isn’t an industry here, all we have are a variety of people trying to grab as much money and market share as possible without any thought to the sustainability of their approach. That’s not an industry, it’s the wild west.

No one has any time or resources to fight for the drone industry because they’re too busy fighting for space. So what does your £180/year membership fee to ARPAS-UK get you? The whiff of credibility? Your name and contact details on a list that’s handed over to the police in the event of an investigation?

What does your £1000 – £5000 loyalty to DJI get you? A drone but no guarantee you’ll be able to fly it for much longer?

As the dust settles from Gatwick we can see it’s already being used as a rationale for councils to ban drone flights from their land. This has been announced in Coventry and soon other councils will likely follow suit.

Who’s speaking out against this? Lone voices, such as Ian Hudson, from UAV Hive raised the issue on Twitter and that’s about it.

Compare that to the car industry. As soon as any measure is floated by councils or governments that penalises car users industry and trade bodies mobilise against it publicly. They understand that one of their main functions is to stand up for the industry, to publicly speak out in its defence and try to affect the narrative.

Lobbying is all well and good, but it’s away from the public view. If you lobby but fail to move public opinion then it will have little to no effect as politicians are more interested in the media than lobbyists.

So what does the future hold for the supposed drone industry in the UK? Undoubtedly tighter regulations, much less public support, greater hostility towards drone users, and the inevitable ongoing bad press. Add to that another drone incident and the hobbyist market will become hugely contracted.

All the low hanging fruit has now been picked and there’s no visible sign that either the manufacturers or trade bodies are willing, or able, to apply the effort to grow the market. Without a growing market there’s no industry, just a niche that a few people make a killing in and the rest just get by.

Moving Beyond Gatwick

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.

Media Hysteria

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.

Countermeasures

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.

Untenable Situation

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.

Ian Povey

Operations Director, Clear Vision Security Ltd

email: [email protected]