Christmas is over, many families returned home after the holidays. However, many air travellers still remember the disturbing news from the airports in Gatwick and Heathrow. For over a day, operations were stopped because of repetitive drone sightings in the area. Passengers were stuck. In the meantime, the British airports have purchased a counter drone system.
We talked to two of our drone experts to shed light on the events. Peter Braun is Account Manager for the company’s own drone detection system (DIDIT). Douwe Lambers is the system’s product manager.
Peter, what’s next? Will other European airports follow and procure such a system?
Peter: I would be surprised if they did not. We have been in touch with airports for quite some time, but they were hesitant about a purchase although they were aware of the threat to airport operations. The incidents in Gatwick and then at Heathrow – even though with much lower impact – has probably shown all airport operators how immense the financial losses can be, caused by a single small drone. In Gatwick alone, 1000 flights were cancelled and 140.000 passengers were stuck. Not even mentioning the long-term effects caused by uncertainty and loss of trust that the passengers have in the airport. An effective drone detection and counter measure system costs a fraction of the financial damage. It is something like an insurance.
It seems like Gatwick was a targeted attack to paralyze airport operations. Who could possibly have an interest in that?
Peter: This is not entirely clear. I can imagine everything ranging from punters, neighbouring residents who don’t like aircraft noise or who want to demonstrate against the permanently growing amount of air traffic, up to people who simply enjoy causing trouble. There are many examples from different areas. In any case, at best, it was reckless behaviour but it could as well have been done with malicious intent. It was definitely not carelessness on Gatwick’s side.
What made it so difficult to find the drone attacker?
Douwe: We lack reliable information to answer this question entirely. It seems that – at least at the beginning – no technology was available at the airport to detect or neutralize drones. When this equipment was finally brought on-site, it appears that the pilot of the drone could not be located. There could be several reasons for this: The system was maybe not capable to detect the pilot’s remote control or the pilot may have been out of range of the system.
Taking a drone down is not a simple exercise either. Shooting down a drone is not easy; they are small, fast and agile, and bullets that go up, do come down somewhere too and can harm bystanders or damage property. Special anti-drone guns that fire nets or wires to catch the drone exist, but these are not standard police equipment and their range is very limited.
Jamming of radio frequencies to disturb GPS signals and the communication between the remote control and the drones is another possibility. However, the impact of radio jamming on other systems needs to be carefully considered. Especially in an airport environment with many communication, navigation and surveillance systems, radio jamming may cause more trouble than the drone itself.
How frequent are such incidents at airports? Was this the first one, or simply the first one that raised so much interest in the media?
Peter: Gatwick as probably the first incident with such severe economic consequences. Over the past years, drone sightings close to aircraft cockpits occurred quite often, in the last years the frequency increased. In 2016, pilots from commercial aircraft reported 64 sightings in the German airspace. In 2018, this number was almost double. In Canada in 2017, a drone crashed into the wing of a plane, which luckily did only cause a few scuffmarks on the wing surface. However, should a drone frontally hit the wing or an engine it could have severe consequences. The University of Dayton tested this scenario in the lab and collided a small drone into a wing of an aircraft to investigate the severity of the effects. Since drones sales are constantly rising, we expect the probability of such collision to rise at least proportionally.
One single incident showed how quickly and easily critical infrastructures can be attacked. Do other sectors need to be worried?
Douwe: Airports are definitely not the only potential targets that may be disturbed by drones. In the last year, we also have seen reports of drones flying near nuclear power plants and chemical industry. Whilst flying a drone near this kind of industries is not a threat in itself, drones can be used to gather intelligence or even to perform an attack. Traditional perimeter security measures are not effective against the drone threat. It is necessary to reassess security measures at critical infrastructure and address the threats drones can pose.
How easy is it to purchase a drone detection and counter measure system?
Douwe: By now, there are quite a few suppliers of counter drone systems, although not all systems are mature. It is important to note that not every solution on the market matches every environment. Tailoring of the solution to the specific use case and operating environment is crucial to success; VIP protection requires a different approach than securing a jail from contraband trafficking. This means that you need to select a suitable mix of sensors for detection, have the appropriate means of alerting and carefully think about the countermeasures. Legal aspects play an important role too; for example on the sensor side, operating a radar requires a license in many countries. For the countermeasures: just because a drone invaded your premises this does not necessarily grant you the rights to destruct it. Therefore, while there are various solutions available, selecting the right solution for a specific scenario requires careful consideration.
Drones have evidently become a part of our reality. What do you think, how is the topic going to evolve now?
Peter: All potentially targeted institutions and individuals know the threat caused by drones. The American military has already been attacked by drones in Syria and was successful in neutralizing them. However, in my opinion, the civilian sector has ignored the acute danger in the past. I assume that the incidents at the airports have increased the awareness for the topic, thanks to the enormous – and luckily the “only” – financial damage.
Another reason why there was only little hurry to implement a protection against drones is the lack of sufficient regulations. It is difficult for me to understand why every building has to comply with fire protection precautions, but at the same time, airports, chemical plants, power plants and other critical infrastructures are free to choose whether they consider protecting themselves against drones. The good news is, within the first half of 2019, the EU has announced a Drone regulation. I hope that this will sufficiently clarify what drones may do where and what is to be forbidden for certain locations. A clear rule who may initiate counter measures is also desirable, so that an active protection can be implemented – of course with proportionate means and without impairing humans or technical infrastructure in the vicinity.
Thank you Peter and Douwe for the interview.