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Aviation: At war with drones

Orville Wright wrote: "When my brother and I built and flew the first man-carrying flying machine, we thought we were introducing into the world an invention which would make further wars practically impossible." He believed that aircraft would enable opposing sides preparing for conflict to monitor each other, removing the possibility of a surprise attack and rendering wars pointless. How naive that view appears now.

Since then another seemingly innocuous piece of airborne technology has been developed - the drone. They might be seen as rather benign too, and indeed they became very popular with surveyors, photographers and enthusiasts. But the technology was adopted by the military and as the devices became more capable they were used to conduct reconnaissance and mount autonomous combat strikes. Drones were used in a war today - at Gatwick. It doesn't matter whether the protagonist was anti-aircraft noise, a supporter of radical measures to reduce climate change, or just wanted to create chaos and cause economic damage. It was a war against air travel.

War against aviation

After staff saw drones in the airspace above and around Gatwick on Wednesday evening, London's second busiest airport was shut down for more than 24 hours on a peak travel day just before Christmas. By 20:45 on Thursday reports claimed there had been more than 50 sightings. By that time 657 flights had been cancelled and the festive travel plans of thousands had been ruined. The armed forces have been brought in and are using a "unique military capability" to help resolve the situation. Once the skies are finally cleared of the aerial menace, it will take days to clear the backlog of passengers.

Unauthorised drones caused the complete closure of the airspace around London's second busiest airport on December 20.

The devices have been used selectively, maybe even strategically - they appeared, the authorities attempted to counter the threat, then they disappeared again. Then once things calmed down, more popped up along the perimeter fence or hovered over the runway. It suggests those involved could see what was happening on the airfield, and might have been working with operators concealed further away. This smacks of a planned and coordinated strike designed to cause as much disruption as possible for as long as possible.

Have larger, commercial-style drones, been used in the Gatwick attacks?

Reports point to some of the drones being larger industrial devices typically used for agriculture or survey work. They've been seen flying in rain which reinforces the idea, as most consumer drones will not operate in the wet. Commercial drones are rather more sophisticated - and much more expensive - than kit consumers can buy over the counter at an electronics store for a few hundred pounds. So cost considerations alone indicate the threat at Gatwick is unlikely to have come from a loner playing a prank, but rather it could be down to a much more orchestrated plot with money behind it.

No place for drones

An answer to why a war against air travel unfolded in southern England today, and who was behind it, remains to be determined. Drones have no place on airfields, except for devices used by authorities for survey work that are deployed under controlled circumstances. They a hazard to full size aircraft - trials have revealed they could seriously damage or even bring down an airliner or light aircraft in an impact with a windshield or engine. And it almost doesn't bear thinking about the consequences of a nefarious operator loading a commercial drone with an offensive payload and flying it into an aircraft or terminal building, but intelligence indicates that terrorists have studied the idea. Finally there is of course the economic impact that airlines and travellers suffer every time a drone invades the airspace round one of our airports.

Fighting back

Rules are already in place that prohibit drones above 400ft or within 0.5km of an airfield. Penalties have been increased to include the prospect of five years in prison and/or a substantial fine. The government has introduced legislation that will mandate training for operators. Manufacturers have gone to great lengths to incorporate software into drones that renders them inoperative in airport traffic zones, but there are companies offering firmware hacks that remove those restrictions. There's also a hobbyist community that self-assembles drones, and they don't have to have install geofencing software.

Tracking down the Gatwick culprits isn't going to be easy either given that some devices can be operated from five miles away, or more. Laws, penalties, education and software will limit the incidents caused by pranksters. But they are less likely to deter more malicious organised intent, so they won't totally rule out a repeat of the mayhem that has plagued Gatwick today. Fortunately Aviation Minister Baroness Sugg agreed when she said: "the other thing that we are looking at counter-drone technology."

Combative technology

There are already ground-based solutions available that can stop drones from entering restricted areas. A successful system has been installed around the perimeter of a Guernsey prison (drones have been used to deliver mobile phones and illicit drugs to inmates elsewhere). Detectors capable of identifying even small consumer-size drones some distance from an airfield have been trialed in the USA. Ground-based devices that interfere with the radio signals used to control drones have been developed. However that technology can cause problems in the Wi-Fi spectrum and anything that creates electromagnetic interference on an airfield will need extensive testing to ensure it does not affect aircraft systems. Many sophisticated drones use satellite navigation, but GPS signals can't be jammed because aviation depends on them. Forcing down drones risks collateral damage if they hit objects or people on the ground.

Could the sale of drones be stopped? Yep, but 1.5m were sold last Christmas alone and many more are already in the country. Might sales be restricted to commercial operators? Again its possible but there would still be a risk that some could get into the wrong hands. Outlaw them completely? Good luck with that - it'd be like trying to shut the stable door after the horse had bolted.

More action needed

So a fix is required but there's no quick or foolproof answer. The British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA) have campaigned over the threat posed by drones for years, but for a long time it was a lone voice in the UK. The government eventually toughened the legislation, but as yet the changes don't seem to have had much impact. BALPA have already called for the drone exclusion zone around airports to be expanded to 5km, registration of devices, and licensing of all operators.

Gatwick was chaos today but thankfully no lives were threatened. Next time could be different. And anti-aviation groups have just learned that they can use drones to completely shut down airports. Preventing the same thing happening again - or worse - will require stricter regulation, additional mandatory user education, better enforcement, severer punishment and deployment of counter-drone technology. Reducing the threat will involve governments, the aviation industry, drone and countermeasures manufacturers, and software developers. The most important action to come out of the disruption at Gatwick - once it is resolved - must be a cross-industry focus on developing a robust solution as quickly as possible.

And finally... As airport staff, police and the military battled to find the culprits amd restore normal flight operations a shameless statement was posted on the Facebook page of campaign group CAGNE (Community Against Gatwick Noise Emissions): "Tranquility and an early Christmas present for the residents surrounding Gatwick Airport as flights stop!"

Text © The Aviation Oracle

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