Following reported drone disruption at Gatwick, the UK industry was at the forefront of mainstream media for days to come, and all for the wrong reasons.
Moving into 2019, prominent members of the industry believe it can push on from this and allow drones to change people’s lives for the better.
Richard Gill, founder and CEO of Drone Defence, told Commercial Drone Professional his thoughts on what future infrastructure can look like and what the events over Christmas mean long term.
Here’s what he had to say:
Drones have the potential to make an overwhelmingly positive impact on our lives, asserts Richard Gill, the founder and CEO of Drone Defence. A recent prediction from PwC is that over 600,000 people will find employment in the industry, which represents an economic contribution to the UK of £42 billion per annum by 2030.
Drone Defence is working to protect airspace from the harmful effects of drone misuse and has developed a number of key technologies, tactics and procedures to achieve this.
Why are drones a growing problem for our skies?
There are a lot of people out there who are either ignorant drone users, or they are people who are exploiting drone technology for commercial, criminal or other nefarious gains. We recognise that as being part of the reason for mass growth of drones. As people continue to abuse drone technology, particularly in this early stage where those advocates of drones are less well organised and coordinated, the negative opinions and voices are the ones who control the narrative.
As stories of drones disrupting airport activity and flying into prisons increase, the detrimental pressure on drone use continues to mount. This has placed pressure on the government to legislate on drones and put those restrictions in place. So for us, the number one concern which we need to address is the abuse of drone technology, because that’s the threat to the mass adoption of drones in the UK.
Is it deliberate or because people don’t know any better?
It’s important to remember that anyone who uses drones for commercial purposes, like for example those individuals who perform aerial inspection or mapping services, will conform to whatever rules and regulations that are laid out for people to consider. We don’t judge those guys to be a problem, but the real issues are centred on those people who are not using them for legitimate purposes. These individuals typically fall into four different categories;
- The first group of people are the ignorant and unaware. These are drone users who genuinely are not aware that they are breaking the rules, so for example when they fly near airports. They mean no harm and have little concept of the impact their illegal drone flights are having.
- The second group are people who know the rules and choose to ignore them. They could be doing it for a multitude of reasons – in most cases, it’s all about doing it because they can and because they view the regulations as being a challenge.
- The third group of people are those who are breaking the rules for commercial gain, like flying drugs into prisons. Typically, however, they’re not looking to cause harm to an organisation.
- The final group is wide ranging and thankfully not numerous. These include; sate actors, activists, terrorists, be it a lone wolf or an organisation which have the means and the intent to cause harm.
The fundamental question to ask is this – what are the intentions of the person committing these acts? Is it deliberate, and what resources do they have? Essentially, the better resourced the advisory the harder the act is to combat.
What impacts will we see on airports?
I believe that the airport is one of the most significant places to be impacted by illegal and nefarious drone activities. People who operate these airports or airlines need to make sure that they’re providing the best possible service to their clients with regards to safety and efficiency. Having an illegal drone in their airspace is a significant safety and economic risk and they have to respond. When it does happen, as we saw at Gatwick Airport, there’s no choice left but to stop air operations completely, until the motive and overall intention of the drone is clear.
As the Gatwick incident showed the country, this can take time. The impact on airports links back to my earlier point about considering the intentions of the person committing these offences. Someone could be innocently flying a new Christmas/birthday present, or someone could be meaning to disruption or cause harm to others. We’ve seen incidents in the past where airports have been targeted explicitly by activists and extremist groups who want to generate as much disruption as possible. These types of people are trying to raise the profile of groups like themselves, and don’t care for the potential harm and consequences they cause when they disrupt an airport.
Why are airports not better protected?
What you have to take into consideration is that the managers of airports, and managers of any event in general, be it a flight, football match, festival or other situation, have a lot of risks to manage. The problem is that they have limited resources to mitigate those risks. Further compounding the situation is the knowledge that the risks are always changing, depending on the intentions of the attacker and the capabilities they possess.
This state of affairs means that, until a particular incident occurs, it’s difficult to review the current safety measures. That’s what we’ve seen here with the events taking place in the UK. Airports are now looking for ways to protect themselves and their passengers, and whilst there are providers for that there’s also no standard for which an airport can compare technologies against each other. Having accurate case studies and physical evidence that provides validity to the claims of any provider aren’t abundant.
What we’ve been able to figure out from the incidents at Gatwick and other places over Christmas is that there are contingency plans put in place. In essence, the event has created a direct economic and reputational impact, which has given rise to an assessment of the percentage of nefarious drone activity. From that, they can allocate budgets to combat the effects of misuse. With this information, airports can now resource their anti-drone strategy and will do so in 2019. But I believe that the baseline level of security needs to increase. With all of the safety measures which are in place, there’s nothing available to protect people from drones and to mitigate the attempts of a drone to cause disruption.
Do there need to be more regulations?
I believe regulations play a part in mitigating the effects of illegal drone use. However, rules alone are not enough. We espouse a belief that there needs to be a more active approach where organisations tackle the problems head-on. The police have more power now to seize drones, stop them from causing problems and question the operators, but we all know that resources for the police in the UK are stretched. Asking them to do more and not providing the resources to do so is a considerable challenge.
So, we need to give airports the ability to protect themselves. And I think in the first instance when we look at drone technology we need to understand that we’re dealing with a radio-controlled vehicle. As the drone relies on a radio signal and gets information via GPS about its location and other factors, I believe that the radio connection should be the critical focus. By breaking the control and navigation links, the drone loses the ability to fly into the desired location. However, the problem we have in the UK is that the technology used to jam these signals are currently considered to be illegal. We believe that the policies need to be updated to allow their use in situations where the drone is confirmed as breaking the law.
As an example, if a drone is too close to an airport or going near areas with more than 1000 people, it is breaking the law. The policies will also need to change to accommodate prisons and other critical infrastructure.
What happens when you identify a drone?
If we detect a drone that is confirmed to be breaking the law, powers should exist to mitigate these threats. We do this by applying a clean and highly localised jamming signal in the 2.4 and 5.8GHz bands. This disrupts the command link and initialises the failsafe activates, returning the drone to its owner. Because of the specific wavelengths our jammers operate in, and our ability to deploy proprietary Precision Antenna Technology (PAT), mobile phones and other devices are not affected. We focus the effect, reduce the power, and limit time to provide a minimal and proportionate impact on the illegal drone, rendering it safe without causing any damage or undue interference.
If jamming the command links to the drone doesn’t work, the next step is to deny the GPS signal. The drone relies on GPS but so does many other everyday things in life, so cutting this signal is the last resort. If it loses GPS, it’ll go into failsafe mode and either float in the air or land under control.
Some drones will use advanced technology however, and in some cases a backup option is needed when they are immune to GPS and command link jamming. We believe that the only acceptable course of action is therefore to shoot it out of the sky, and this is a task which should be entrusted to the military.
Can you catch the pilot?
This is challenging. With drones possessing up to a 20-mile flight time, pinning down the pilot is difficult. It’s possible to catch the pilot if they are controlling the drone in real-time, but you need to have a drone sensor close to the controller to identify the signal, and then multiple sensors to triangulate a location. Environmental structures can effectively distort a signal, so you’ll need to set up a sensor grid to effectively catch the pilots.
How do you see anti-drone technology being used in the future?
In the future, I see drones continue to be integrated into general airspace, and frameworks will be introduced to allow it to coexist with general aviation. I believe that regulations will be put into place that allow for cooperation between drones and other aviation.
At the same time however, I believe that measures will be put into place to protect people from having drones straying into spaces they shouldn’t be in, and at the same time monitoring multiple drones all at once. There will also be a need to ensure cooperation between the drones and the regulatory bodies on the ground, regardless of what side of the law they fall.
The challenge will be how we react to drones that enter the airspace that are not cooperating, and learning how we mitigate drones which don’t conform to the rules. Once we get a monitoring system for the lower airspace, we can get full control over the skies.
What would I like to see happen next in the UK?
I believe that the incident at Gatwick and the other locations have brought people’s minds to bear on the potential of drones. I would love to see people take an active role in regulating their skies and protecting their premises. I would like to see the use of our safety systems in this process. 2019 will be an exciting year for making sure that we consolidate all of our resources as an industry, and that we form a stronger, confident voice for the industry. I also see the drone defence systems working together to form strategic alliances to protect critical infrastructure. We’re in talks with a wide array of buildings and events to make sure that our technology can be safely deployed.