As an expert warns ‘most of the world’s airports and leading destinations remain vulnerable to criminal or rogue mayhem’, will lessons be learned from the London airports’ drone shutdowns?

17 January, 2019

Was it a bird? It certainly wasn’t a plane and unlikely it was a caped super hero. The belief is that while drone activity initially closed Gatwick Airport at one of the busiest travel periods late last year ahead of the seasonal winter holidays, investigators have subsequently claimed that the numerous sightings over the London airport that kept it closed may have been exaggerated.

The UK Government has proclaimed the deployment of military technology that permitted Gatwick to safely re-open and safeguard flying at UK airports proved premature when Heathrow was forced to suspend departures earlier this month after a drone was allegedly sighted close to its northern runway.

The potential impact of drone activity on commercial aviation is clear and just ahead of the Gatwick closure, Mexican authorities were investigating whether a drone slammed into a Boeing 737 of Aeromexico as the aircraft approached its destination in Tijuana, Mexico, on the US border, causing damage to the airframe. The aircraft was able to land safely, but the dangers are clear and while most nations prohibit drones from flying in proximity to airports, concerns are growing as millions of the devices enter public hands.

An industry expert claims that virtually every one of the world’s commercial airports and leading destinations currently remain vulnerable to criminal abuse or ‘rogue’ operation of drone technology. Alongside the “shock wake-up call” from the chaos at Gatwick Airport and more recently at Heathrow, he highlights an exploding drone incident in Yemen as another example of the dangers.

This warning, from Robert Garbett, founder and chief executive of Drone Major Group, the a leading global drone and counter drone consultancy, is, he says “because there remains very low awareness among the business community of the extraordinary pace at which drone technology is evolving… and this makes staying ahead of the threat posed by those who would abuse this technology challenging, for even the most competent of businesses and management teams.”

He warns that the commercial air drone market is “currently still like the Wild West… exciting, and representing unprecedented economic opportunity for companies and organisations which are fast adopting this exceptional technology”. However, he says, there will always be those who “would flaunt laws and regulation to cause maximum disruption around the world”. And this particularly impacts on more vulnerable sectors such as airports, financial centres, energy facilities, stadiums and concert venues, etc., which he describes as requiring “tailored defence strategies to protect against what is a new and real security challenge”.

There are literally hundreds of counter drone products and manufacturers worldwide and the market is expanding on a daily basis making it extremely difficult to keep track of latest developments, acknowledges Mr Garbett. And while similar technology has been used by armed forces for both offence and defence, for many years, long before the recent adoption by the business world, it remains a challenge to develop sustainable solutions to the impacts of drones.

Mr Garbett explains that military techniques are now being applied, particularly in counter drone strategies which utilise an ever evolving range of advanced technologies to detect, track, identify and defeat the threat posed by those who would abuse air drone technology for nefarious means. However, he warns that a rapid, often knee-jerk adoption of such technology in the face of media pressure, while providing a short-term fix, “can often be a long term error of judgement and, in isolation of appropriate policies and procedures, is rarely effective”.

So what is the best solution? According to Mr Garbett the application of both ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ effect counter drone measures is one way. Soft effect measures include intelligence-led threat identification, robust airspace management with commensurate risk management policies and legal procedures. Hard measures are broken down into ‘Detect, Track and Identify’ and ‘Defeat’ which are subject to strict usage restrictions.

“One of the challenges for our clients in all sectors is the need to adopt drone technology always within a disciplined strategy which supports the organisation, ensures security and also ‘future proofs’ what is put in place. The adoption of counter drone technology is no exception and so we would urge those organisations reacting to recent events to take a breath and think strategically,” he says.

As far as criminals or ‘rogue’ drone operators are concerned, “they will always exist,” says Mr Garbett, but he argues that their task “will be made much more difficult” by an increasingly “informed business community” and the putting in place of “more sophisticated counter drone strategies.” The implementation of the forthcoming ‘Drone Bill’ within the UK and the adoption of the new aerial drone Standards which were launched for public and peer group consultation in November 2018 by the International Standards Organisation (ISO), are also a move in the right direction, he acknowledges.